N.Y. workers reject givebacks

October 10, 2011

Sandy Boyer reports on the situation facing New York state public-sector workers.

WORKERS IN the state of New York have rejected Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo's attempt to impose a concessionary contract with a two-year wage freeze, increased payments for health benefits and nine days off without pay. The 56,000 members of the Public Employees Federation (PEF) voted to reject the contract by a 54 to 46 percent majority.

Now, Cuomo is retaliating by threatening to lay off 3,500 PEF members. Unfortunately, the union leadership hasn't committed to seriously fight the layoffs, instead offering the state new concessions.

PEF President Ken Brynien had previously urged his members to accept the contract with the pay freeze. "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," he said in a statement.

The PEF leaders have asked Cuomo to postpone the layoffs and re-open negotiations. Instead, Cuomo is preparing to outsource the jobs of PEF members. The state has even begun soliciting nonprofit agencies that don't provide health care or pay union wages to do PEF workers' jobs, according to the Albany Times Union.

Cuomo has little incentive to return to negotiations. The threat of layoffs has already spurred the much larger Civil Service Employees Association to agree to a contract almost identical to the one that the PEF members have rejected.

CUOMO AND the state legislature have already adopted a budget based on a $450 million cut in labor costs, but PEF has demanded that instead of laying off workers, the state should restore the "millionaire's tax"--a surcharge on single individuals with incomes more than $200,000 and married couples with incomes more than $300,000. Cuomo has blocked this, although the Democrats who control the state assembly nominally support it.

Nothing short of a major mobilization will force Cuomo to cancel the layoffs without massive new concessions. It would take big demonstrations and rallies as well as an urgent outreach to labor, religious and community organizations.

The Wall Street occupation offers an ideal opportunity to enlist new allies. This kind of campaign could force the Assembly Democrats to live up to their commitment to the millionaire's tax.

But rather than fight back, the PEF leaders have offered Cuomo unspecified new concessions. While the members rejected the original concessions, they don't seem to be organized enough to make their leaders resist.

If the state is successful in forcing through layoffs, it will damage all New York public employees. If, as seems likely, there is another budget deficit next year, Cuomo is sure to be back, demanding more concessions. New York City's billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg is currently laying off more than 700 school aides because he says their union, AFSCME District Council 37, won't make enough concessions.

And when the contract expires for Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100, it's possible that a confrontation could emerge with the power to reshuffle the balance of forces. TWU members run New York City's subways and busses, and when they walk out, the whole city shuts down.

Management is threatening layoffs even before negotiations begin, and TWU Local 100 President John Samuelsen has vowed that the union won't be satisfied without improvements in wages and benefits in the next contract. The stakes will be very high for all New York's public employees. A fight led by the TWU could be the key to building solidarity and militancy sufficient to reverse this downhill slide.

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