Members of the Public Employees Federation (PEF) voted in September to reject a concessionary contract agreement with New York State, despite Governor Andrew Cuomo’s threat of 3,500 layoffs if the deal was not approved. The 54% to 46% vote marked the first time in the union’s history that PEF members had voted against ratification of a tentative contract agreement.
PEF members were subsequently asked to vote a second time, on a revised version of the proposal. Those ballots were set to be counted November 3, and Cuomo warned that a second “no” vote would be followed by layoffs the very next day.
After the first deal was defeated, PEF President Ken Brynien assessed the result. “The cuts that have been demanded of [PEF members] in this tentative agreement were just too many,” Brynien told reporters, “and they cut too deep.”
State Senator Diane Savino took it a step further, telling The Chief-Leader, “I quite frankly am not surprised it was voted down. If you’re gonna negotiate with your foot on people’s necks, sometimes they’re gonna rise up and say, ‘I’m not gonna take it anymore’.’’ Savino is former chair of the State Senate’s civil service committee.
The vote against the tentative settlement was 19,629 to 16,906, and the rejection drew close attention in the New York labor movement. In his 2010 campaign Cuomo had pledged to take a hard line against public-sector unions, and in April the governor announced that he would seek $450 million of concessions from State employees. In the following months he effectively used the threat of layoffs to win union givebacks (see psc-
But PEF members’ vote in September broke with the concessionary pattern set in the Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA) contract this summer – and John Samuelsen, president of Transport Workers Union Local 100, welcomed the news. “This puts Local 100 in a stronger position when the [TWU] contract expires Jan. 15,” Samuelsen told the Daily News. “It’s a huge boost for us.”
The outcome of PEF’s second vote, on the new version of the settlement, was hard to predict. The union’s leadership urged ratification of the revised proposal on essentially the same grounds that it supported the original version in September – that while the concessions were painful, it was a price worth paying to avert the layoffs.
“Ratification of this agreement will demonstrate that our members are willing to sacrifice to save the jobs of 3,496 of their co-workers and preserve the level of service to taxpayers,” Brynien said on Oct. 17.
The tweaks to the proposal included reducing its length from five years to four and eventually reimbursing members for all nine of the unpaid furlough days they would have to take over the next 18 months; in the previous version they were only to be paid back for four. But this improvement was funded by dropping a $1,000 lump sum payment that the first version would have paid to each member. As in the original version, workers would go without raises in the first three years, and would get a 2% wage hike in the final year. A PEF statement said the revised deal would allow “greater opportunity to use vacation time to offset health insurance costs.”
Within PEF, a small group called PEF Proud (Professionals Reclaiming Our Union Decisions) has been organizing for a second “no” vote, contending that in the long run “concessions won’t save jobs.” PEF Proud includes some members of the union’s executive board, which voted 92 to 18 to support the altered accord. Another group of members, PEF Families, is asking members who voted “no” the first time to change their minds; it emphasizes the devastating effect that layoffs could have on those who lose their jobs. Both groups took the same positions during the earlier vote in September.
Cuomo has stressed that the revised proposal would not cost the State any more than the first version – and he has been blunt about the limits of the accord’s “no layoff” provisions. “It is not a 100% guarantee that there will be no layoffs,” he said on October 17 when the revised deal was announced. “We have a current intent that there be no further layoffs, but…with this economy, who knows what next year will bring? So…I can’t say anything with finality about layoffs. I understand what they wanted. We couldn’t do what they wanted.”
The governor has argued that cutting labor costs is essential if New York is to close its budget gap – but his credibility in terms of budget balancing may be starting to fade. Cuomo’s hard-line opposition to renewing New York’s “millionaires’ tax” has become a target of increasing criticism.
Inspired by the Occupy Wall Street protests, unions and community groups have stepped up their calls for the “millionaires’ tax” to be extended past its scheduled expiration at the end of this year. “It is unacceptable to allow a $5 billion dollar tax cut to be enacted on December 31,” said Ron Deutsch, an organizer of a new coalition dubbed “99 New York.” “If anyone in this state needs a tax cut, it is not millionaires and billionaires.”
The group’s name was inspired by the Occupy Wall Street slogan, “We are the 99%.” Protesters in NYC, Albany and elsewhere have recently dubbed Cuomo “Governor 1%” for his opposition to taxing the rich.
Opinion polls show strong public support for keeping New York’s “millionaires’ tax” in place. In a recent Siena poll, for example, 72% backed its extension. But Cuomo insists that poll results will not change his mind. “The fact that everybody wants it, that doesn’t mean all that much,” he told reporters in mid-October, as he urged PEF members to ratify their latest contract proposal.
Note: An hour before Clarion went to press on Nov. 3, the Albany Times-Union reported that the revised agreement had been ratified by 27,718 to 11,645.