Cuomo had a strong hand to play in union deals

The state of organized labor in New York is precarious. Previously, the political clout of unionized civil service groups was unquestioned. The Republicans had the rich hot shots giving them money, the Democrats had the unions. The conventional wisdom was always that no one was going to win statewide office as a Democrat without the civil service unions. They had the money and the bodies; get out the vote operations, telephone banks and everything else that could help a Democratic candidate win. Of course, they never figured on Andrew Cuomo, son of Mario, who is running his administration like Eisenhower ran the war against the Nazis in Europe. The old assumptions are out the window and new strategies are emerging. Cuomo knows which way the wind is blowing. As the man who remakes the rules in New York state, he eschews the way his pro-union father did things and has made a lot of new allies as what can only be called a Democratic Republican who is at war with the unions and a friend to the millionaires.

New York’s unions may have been doing great things for their members but John Q. Public resented them. Andrew sensed an opportunity and he took it. The state was broke, people weren’t feeling favorably disposed toward unions, and the iron was hot. Andrew demanded incredible, previously unthinkable concessions, the kind espoused by Cuomo supporter Rupert Murdoch. Unions were faced with a Hobson’s choice: lose a lot of members to firings and layoffs or agree to previously unimaginable demands including freezes, benefit reductions and the like. The first sign of his success was that the state’s Law Enforcement Officers Union (Council 82) took the tough deal on salaries and benefits.

Enter the other union administrators. Under the leadership of Danny Donohue, the largely blue collar Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA) forged a contract with the state that prevented threatened large scale layoffs. In the past, it was assumed that if people were fired, they would no longer be union members and could not vote against union leadership. Once you’re fired, you lose your vote. This time, however, Donohue must have decided that if he were to maintain solidarity in the union he would have to protect those who were last hired and therefore would be first fired. Now there will be a lot of grateful union members who will never forget what their leader did for them.

Interestingly, blue collar workers seem to be more in a spirit of solidarity than their white collar cousins in the Public Employees Federation (PEF). Many of the PEF members have a college education, took political science courses and know their rights so when their leaders negotiated a contract filled with many of the same compromises the largely blue collar CSEA members had made, the union voted it down. Andrew Cuomo was having none of it and took to the public podium to denounce the PEF members as selfish. He drew their ire by saying that they didn’t care if their younger brothers and sisters in the union were fired. Those with seniority, he intoned in his unique New York accent, were being selfish. They didn’t care if those who were last hired were fired and he sent out the promised thousands of layoff notices.

Unlike the CSEA group that knows about solidarity and sticking together, the PEF leaders understood that they had a tiger by the tail. One false move and they would be eaten. This is a union with a history of throwing out its leadership. There is a lot of anger in the group. After all, it is the men and women of the unions who keep the state running. When the larder was filled, they couldn’t be stopped but as employees in every other sector are being furloughed and seeing their wages frozen, one can only imagine that public support for the unions is limited. Union membership has to know that the state has its back to the wall. Put simply, Andrew Cuomo had a very strong hand to play. The CSEA knew that and folded, knowing they would be supported by the rank and file. The PEF leaders were playing with their own personal longevity. They were out of luck. Their pain must be intense.

Originally published in the Legislative Gazette, 10/3/11

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