The following op-ed appeared November 1, 2011 in The Chief-Leader, a New York City-based weekly civil service newspaper since 1897 that focuses on municipal government and its labor unions while also covering issues affecting New York State and Federal employees.
Our Version of Wisconsin
State Contract Terms Part of Anti-Worker Offensive
By ANDREW D. COATES, MD
A bid to kettle New York’s public-employee unions crowns Andrew Cuomo’s larger program of austerity.
A state-by-state anti-public-employee-union offensive this year has been topped infamously by union-busting legislation in Wisconsin and Ohio. Here in New York the same task requires some sophistication.
Governor Cuomo thinks he has the juice. In strong-arm negotiations he landed PEF just where he wanted: damned if we do and damned if we don’t. His layoff threats forced PEF into classic concession bargaining, negotiating against our own interests.
The Governor launched his term with a promise to downsize the state’s agencies by 20 percent. In addition, he issued a demand for $450 million in total annual givebacks from public-employee-union members. He threatened to lay off up to 9,800 state workers if unions failed to ratify concession contracts. And the Legislature followed suit by including the union givebacks in the state budget assumptions.
Even while PEF members vote on a new tentative agreement, Cuomo continues to assert that it will not prohibit layoffs connected with his aim to downsize the workforce, only those he threatened as part of his negotiations. SAGE Commission “determinations,” his vehicle to agency downsizing, consolidations and privatization, are excluded.
Third Time No Charm
Meanwhile PEF members have suffered three rounds of layoff threats. In the summer nearly 1,000 PEF layoffs were threatened just after CSEA reached a tentative agreement. These were rescinded when PEF accepted a tentative agreement substantially similar to the CSEA deal. The second came immediately after PEF members rejected that contract and 3,496 PEF members were “targeted.” The third round have been put on hold until Nov. 4, the day after the ballot on a revised tentative agreement will be counted.
“When the membership rejected the leadership’s offer,” Cuomo said at a press conference, “I think they caught everyone by surprise.” (Everyone except the 19,629 who voted “no”?)
Like a spoiled child losing at checkers, he demanded that the union give him a do-over. He also patronized the PEF leadership, seeming to say that they owed him a “re-vote” because they had failed to do their job — delivering up the members’ ratification of concessions. PEF members, proud of their union’s democratic traditions, including many who voted for the contract, were infuriated.
But with 3,496 members held hostage, PEF’s leaders scrambled back to the table. A second tentative agreement, hastily reached in mid- October, again averted layoffs by days.
The tentative agreement remains a significant giveback contract — Cuomo dictated “revenue-neutral” renegotiating terms: the bottom line would be givebacks of an amount equivalent to those made by CSEA. Both Cuomo and CSEA have said the new agreement meets these criteria.
Adding Insult to Injury
Yet if the revised PEF contract is ratified, it seems difficult to imagine many PEF members savoring the moment when they paid the ransom to rescue the hostages.
The state workforce has been downsized steadily for two decades, while wages and benefits have remained flat. A recent large wave of retirements from state service, employees who have often not been replaced, has resulted in a further hardship for the remaining workers.
Not only have New York’s professional, technical and scientific public employees done “more with less” for a long time, public-sector wages and benefits, when matched for age, gender and education, remain significantly less than private-sector wages and benefits. (PEF members tend to be highly educated and/or with significant longevity, and many of the union’s best activists are women.)
Canards about “greedy state workers” and “too generous” benefits have particularly anguished public employees whose work experience has been a tale of year-in and year-out self-sacrifice on so many levels, including routine disrespect from incompetent agency leaders whose job credentials often boil down to political cronyism. Perhaps PEF members hoped that Andrew Cuomo might have some idea of these facts when the union endorsed his campaign for Governor.
On top of all this, the threatened layoffs have nothing to do with redundant services. Neither will they save the state money, for the privatization of essential services as a result of layoffs would end up costing the taxpayers much more.
Not only essential services but PEF leaders and activists were “targeted.” Union-minded public servants, whether inclined to ratify or defeat the contract, took profound offense.
Governor 1 Percent
Cuomo appears to want the leadership of PEF and other public-sector unions to help manage his austerity program. His formulation that “the membership rejected the leadership’s offer” was telling. He hopes to make the union leaders into deputy bullies who will bring their members to heel.
Cuomo aims not so much to break the unions but to house-break them. It’s the old company-union idea. If, for example, the SAGE Commission recommends mass layoffs due to agency consolidations, downsizing, speed-ups or privatization, the unions should be there to help the people lose their jobs smoothly, without strife or rebellion.
To resist being cast in this role, PEF and other unions will need to make a fundamental shift in strategy and tactics. “I’ve seen many instances where the unions refused to go along with anything they didn’t like,” PEF President Ken Brynien explained in a recent interview, “and the companies went out of business.”
By comparison, the rallying cry “We Are the 99 Percent!” pierces through. Here in Albany, protesters have renamed Cuomo “Governor 1 Percent.”
This is exactly how we should explain that Cuomo’s assertion that public employees “owed” New York givebacks equal to $450 million annually has been ridiculous all along. In the coming fiscal year, keeping the surcharge on New York millionaires’ incomes will increase state revenue by $5 billion—over 10 times the amount the Governor claimed public employees “owe” the state.
Mobilizing member-by-member throughout the whole union movement to win the fight to keep the Millionaires Tax could help change the whole game. As a counter-offensive it would provide a means to challenge the Governor’s entire program of austerity—and also to mobilize an increasingly restive rank and file.
Dr. Coates is a Steward and Council Leader of Division 231 of the Public Employees Federation in Albany.