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New York not alone in fight with unions

Marches like this one from 2003 could be part of 2011 as Gov. Andrew Cuomo is expected to ask public employee unions to make concessions to close an estimated $10 billion budget gap.
Ove Overmyer
via Flickr
Marches like this one from 2003 could be part of 2011 as Gov. Andrew Cuomo is expected to ask public employee unions to make concessions to close an estimated $10 billion budget gap.

New York State faces a $10 billion budget gap. Now that the dust is settling from Governor Andrew Cuomo’s state of the state address, his office will be working to draft a balanced proposal to send to the legislature.

Part of the proposal is expected to include a wage freeze for public sector union workers.

But Steve Madarasz, spokesman for the state's largest union, the Civil Service Employees Association, dismisses that as political rhetoric.  

Madarasz won't weigh in on the governor's pay freeze idea until he sees a concrete proposal. Current union contracts include raises of 3 to 4 percent each year, but expire on March 31. According to the New York Times, Cuomo could institute the freeze without legislative approval, bypassing the contract negotiation.

Madrasz disagrees though, as he tells public radio capital correspondent Karen DeWitt reports:

Madarasz says whether there's a pay freeze or not will come as the result of the collective bargaining process.

Meanwhile, CSEA Local 657 president Sally Bywater says the idea of a wage freeze is unfair.  Writing in a letter to the editor of the Times Union, Bywater criticizes the administration for calling for wage freezes, while making two two education department appointments at $175,000 a pop.

Why is it that those of us making the lowest salaries are always targeted? The most recent layoffs fell on the shoulders of CSEA and PEF workers and maybe one management person in our agency. The consultants and temporary staff were untouched.

Bywater says instead Cuomo should look to public employee unions for their ideas about cost-saving solutions.

Beyond New York

But this fight isn't just between Cuomo and New York's unions.  It's more like a battle royale, between government budget bottom lines, and public sector unions, everywhere.

The Economist notes in a piece called “(Government) workers of the world unite!” that public sector unions have had it good for years and years, but now their pension programs and wages are starting to get a second look from cash-strapped governments.

Public-sector unions will find it hard to win these battles. They have not been particularly successful in mobilizing public anger, considering the scale of the cutbacks.

That's not going to stop them from trying though. The Economist writes that “unions across Europe have promised strikes in 2011 on scale not seen since the 1980s.” And public workers made headlines last year too.

Millions of French workers marched against Nicolas Sarkozy’s modest plans to raise the retirement age by two years. Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets in Ireland and Greece against austerity measures. London Underground workers have repeatedly paralyzed transport in the city.

Public versus private

The Economist notes in the same article that organized labor has been on the decline for decades in the US:

  • In the American private sector trade-union density (so, the proportion of workers who belong to unions) has fallen from a about 33 percent in 1979, to just 7 percent today.

That's in stark contrast with their public sector counterparts.

  • In America, public sector trade union density has increased over the same period from 11 percent to 36 percent.

Economist columnist Adrian Wooldridge said in a recent podcast that public employee unions have escaped the decline their private counterparts faced for three reasons:

  • Public sector unions typically represent a monopoly service, like police and fire, so there’s no alternative to obtaining those services.
  • Elected officials are the ones paying the public workers, so the unions work to elect bosses that favor public jobs.
  • Private companies are limited in how many employees they can hire or how much they can pay. The government can never go out of business, so it’s not up against the success or failure from market forces.

Those are powerful prevailing winds for the governor to work against.  But he's not in this fight alone.  Trimming unions and state government rolls have long been a favorite policy of the likes of the Manhattan Institute.  And just this week the Auburn Citizen appealed to public sentiment with an editorial that declared:

It’s not as if Cuomo has had an epiphany before his State of the State address. The primary function of government must not be employer. There are certainly efficiencies to be found and consolidations to be made, and with those changes must come a reduced state work force. We have no doubt we’ll be hearing claims from unions that job losses will bring about an immediate threat to public safety and vital services. We’re not going to fall for it, and we hope no one else does, either.

Yes sir, it's shaping up to be a fight.

Innovation Trail alumnus Ryan Morden is originally from Seattle. He graduated from the University of Washington with a bachelor's in journalism, minoring in political science and Scandinavian studies. Morden was Morning Edition producer and reporter at WRVO before moving over to the Innovation Trail project. Before landing at WRVO, Morden covered the Washington State legislature as a correspondent for Northwest News Network (N3), a group of nine NPR affiliates in the northwest.
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