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No one expected the new contracts with the state worker unions to be finished on April 1. But both the Cuomo Administration and the unions are talking, and one contract, with perhaps the smallest public worker union, has already been settled.
Halfway through the month, Council 82, which represents several hundred peace officers, including park rangers, agreed to a deal that includes a pay freeze and bigger worker contributions for health care.
The governor, speaking recently in Buffalo, says he hopes the contract could be a model for the much larger state worker unions, and if used as a blueprint, could achieve the $450 million dollars in savings he’s targeted in the already-approved state budget. Saying the state is "functionally bankrupt", the governor, who has said the alternative is up to 10,000 layoffs, offered a warning to the larger unions.
"If the public employees think they can get a big raise from the state they can’t," said Cuomo. "We don’t have the money."
Steve Madarasz, a spokesman for the largest state worker union, the Civil Service Employees Association, says the Council 82 contract does not set a "precedent" for other unions, and he says union leaders will continue to bargain for the best deal for their members.
But he says his union also "recognizes that the state has some tremendous challenges".
"We’re willing to do our part to try to help address them," Madarasz said.
Because of the ongoing talks, he could not discuss specific proposals, but Madarasz says the layoff threats have created anxiety for workers and has a “chilling effect” on local economies.
One reason why it’s easy to miss the April 1 contract deadline is a statute known as the Triborough Amendment. It ensures that when a contract expires, the terms of the old deal remain in effect until a new contract is settled. Critics say that gives unions incentive to drag their feet.
Madarasz, with CSEA, says the law is misunderstood. He says under another provision, the Taylor Law, public workers are prohibited from going on strike, so they need to have some other protections. And he says even though the most recent contracts guaranteed state workers raises each year, the Triborough Amendment does not permit the raises to continue, it simply stops the action until there’s an agreement.
"It doesn’t mean that people continue to get raises," said Madarasz.
Although Cuomo has talked tough about public workers needing to make sacrifices, he has not attacked any of the tenets of labor negotiations, as has occurred in states like Wisconsin, where the governor and republicans in the legislature suspended collective bargaining.
Bruce Gyory, political analyst and political science professor at SUNY Albany who has worked for previous governors, says Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker may actually help Cuomo, by making the New York governor look reasonable by comparison.
He compares Governor Walker’s actions to the former US House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s style of governing in the mid 1990’s, advocating "drastic" changes , using the threat of government shutdown .
While Cuomo, Gyory says, may be trying to emulate former Governor Hugh Carey, who decided to "invite labor in" and convinced unions to agree to concessions during the fiscal crisis of the 1970’s.
Democratic politicians also need unions more than Republicans. Traditionally, labor has been a key part of the democratic constituency, and has provided volunteers for essential campaign field operations like phone banks and literature drops.
On whether Democrat Cuomo will ultimately be considered a friend to labor, Madarasz with CSEA says, "the jury is still out."