Clarion Masthead

NY State Workers Held ‘Hostage’: Gov's Threats Win Concessions

Governor Andrew Cuomo has successfully used the threat of massive state worker layoffs to force concessionary contract settlements, with wage freezes, from the two largest state worker unions. As Clarion went to press, members had not yet ratified the tentative agreements.

The Public Employees Federation, the second-largest State workers’ union, announced the settlement on July 16, six days before the first of 742 announced layoffs were due to go into effect. Cuomo had threatened to lay off nearly 10,000 workers unless State employee unions gave him major concessions. A week before the accord, PEF blasted the governor for “us[ing] the threat of layoffs to hold hostage our members [and] their families.”

FURLOUGHS

The tentative deal was nearly the same as one reached by the larger Civil Service Employee Association, with no wage increases in the first three years of a five-year contract, and increased health-care costs for working members and retirees. The PEF and CSEA settlements also include nine unpaid furlough days, officially dubbed “deficit reduction leave.”

The proposed agreement provides for one 2% pay hike in each of the last two years of the agreement, along with lump-sum payments in the third and fourth years that total $1,000. Employees would eventually be paid for four of the nine furlough days – without interest – over an 18-month period in 2016 and 2017. The civil service paper The Chief concluded that, overall, members of both unions would be “literally losing money over the course of the five-year deals.”

In exchange for these concessions, the settlements give members some protection against the layoffs that Cuomo had threatened. But as The Chief noted, those protections are “not ironclad.” Layoffs are still allowed if they result from closing a state facility through legislation or the deci-sion of a Cuomo-appointed commission, or if there are “material or unanticipated changes in the State’s fiscal circumstances, financial plan or revenue.” All limits on layoffs expire in April 2013, while the contract runs until April 2016.

As Clarion went to press, CSEA members were voting on ratification, with results due to be announced August 15. The PEF agreement will not be sent to members for a vote until September 2, with ballots counted September 27.

A front-page story in The New York Times and extensive coverage in The Chief both questioned whether members would ratify the conces-sionary agreements. “The membership is at a point of boiling over,” one CSEA activist told The Chief. But while there were many reports of wide discontent with both deals, organized opposition has not been highly visible in either union. Opinion was sharply split in the hundreds of messages that State employees left on the Albany Times-Union’s Capitol Confidential blog.

INFLAMMATORY

The Chief observed that Gov. Cuomo had not helped prospects for ratification with his July 13 interview in the Times. “Cuomo Says Curbing Public Pension Benefits Will Be His Top Goal in ’12” was the headline, and CSEA and PEF members who read it might well wonder if the conces-sions would ever end: both unions had agreed to a reduced Tier 5 for new employees’ pensions in 2009, in part to stave off nearly 9,000 layoffs threatened by then-Governor Paterson. “I was surprised at [Cuomo’s] statement in the middle of a ratification,” one union leader told The Chief. “You don’t want to throw oil on the fire.”

When PEF held statewide rallies against Cuomo’s layoff threats this June, its members chanted, “Cuomo doesn’t care, unless you’re a millionaire.” Both PEF and CSEA had supported the unsuccessful push in March to renew New York’s “millionaire’s tax,” and the issue was a common theme for union members advocating a “no” vote on the contract settlements. “Stop screwing over middle-class workers for your millionaire buddies,” one wrote on Capitol Confidential. “We need a revolt and we need it now,” wrote another.

But leaders of each union argue that it was the best that could be achieved in a tough political and economic environment. “This was a difficult agreement to reach, but with our members’ jobs in peril and the State’s fiscal hardship, we’ve stepped up and made the necessary sacrifices,” said PEF President Ken Brynien.

Many members, particularly in high-unemployment areas, feel that even limited protection against layoffs is an offer they can’t refuse. “If I vote no to the contract, my twin sister is slated to lose her job,” one CSEA member wrote online. “If I vote yes to the contract, I can’t afford to pay my bills....I would rather vote yes to keep her employed and my 1-year-old niece with health care.”

PUSHING BACK

Some other recent state employee contracts have not had a smooth path to ratification. In mid-April, the 1,200 members of the Agency Law En-forcement Services section of Council 82, which represents NY State peace officers, rejected a proposed contract with even steeper concessions than the PEF/CSEA deals; this month those workers broke away to form a separate union. Recently, a concessionary deal between Connecticut and a state union coalition fell short of the support required for ratification. It was approved by 57% of voting members, far short of the 80% re-quired by the union coalition’s rules. Those rules have now been revised to set a lower bar for approval, and a revote is now underway.

UPDATE:
CSEA announced August 15 that union members had approved their new five-year contract by a vote of 60%.