Cuomo’s bargain: The governor’s attitude toward labor depends on the union, and the season

Andrew Cuomo. (Photo via Andrew Cuomo on flickr.)
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ALBANY—“I would like to get some sort of resounding expression of support for those brave men and women that are filling up the statehouse in Wisconsin fighting for their rights and our rights,” Denis Hughes, president of the New York State AFL-CIO, began a speech earlier this month to the Association of Black and Puerto Rican Legislators. “Let’s hear it! They are truly, truly patriots.”

He went on to decry what is happening in Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker has made himself a conservative darling by trying to repeal the collective bargaining rights of the state's public employees. Hughes did not mention Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

It's not that Cuomo has been a great friend to labor in this time of crisis, particularly: Facing the same set of fiscal circumstances that have prompted governors like Walker, Ohio’s John Kasich, Indiana’s Mitch Daniels and New Jersey’s Chris Christie to declare open war on unionized public employees, Cuomo has pushed for major concessions from the unions. But he's clearly not an ideological opponent of labor, either, and he and his aides have pushed hard in the last few days to make clear that he does not share the Republicans' basic antipathy to the union movement.

Cuomo's attitude toward organized labor has been characterized, above all, by a ruthless pragmatism, tailoring his belligerence level to each situation, and to the political power of each of his counterparties.

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Throughout his campaign last year, Cuomo decried “the special interests” that are mucking things up in Albany, but only when prompted admitted that he was referring to PEF, CSEA, SEIU 1199 and NYSUT. He helped set up a committee of business leaders—and a private-sector-and-labor coalition—to serve as a counterweight to their influence. And he has since adopted different tactics for dealing with each of the special-interest unions in question.

He is closest to open war with NYSUT, the teachers union, whose members and affiliated groups have demonstrated against Cuomo at several turns. The governor has proposed $1.5 billion in cuts to education aid, saying that the “education bureaucracy” has sucked up additional money without any attached improvement in student performance.

Cuomo’s proposed budget books $450 million from a “labor-management partnership” with PEF and CSEA, whose contracts expire On April 1, the same day the budget is due. If the savings aren’t realized, Cuomo said he would lay off up to 9,800 people as a “last resort.” He is chatting with both Kenneth Brynien and Danny Donohue, the unions’ leaders, but has yet to begin organized bargaining. Formal negotiations usually start later, but with a layoff threat looming, the unions are starting to grumble.

"I've told the governor that any talk of givebacks on the part of the unions needs to be in the context of a full, negotiated agreement, and our negotiating team is ready to start talking about whatever the governor wants to start talking about," Brynien said. "We've got things we need, he's got things he needs, and if we sat down we can work them out. But we can't negotiate stuff in the press, and we can't negotiate stuff in a closed room somewhere. It has to be through normal negotiations."

Cuomo's attitude has been most accommodating to SEIU 1199, which represents health care workers. Cuomo adjusted his proposed cut to the health sector to reflect slower-than-expected program growth, and included significant protections in some Medicaid sectors that will help well 1199’s ranks over the long run.

Why? It’s what’s expedient. The union, through a partnership with the Greater New York Hospital Association, has long been the scourge of gubernatorial budget plans (Cuomo admitted as much Friday), and this governor has calculated that they are most effectively dealt with as partners.

Cuomo has cultivated 1199 for years, keeping them as a frenemy throughout his gubernatorial campaign. NYSUT, by contrast, is an easier target, both because of sweet deals the union has won for its members over the years, and because of proven political efficacy of bashing the teachers union. (Chris Christie may have been a useful model here.)

Cuomo rightly points out that he has long ties to labor. After some hesitation this summer, the AFL-CIO and labor-heavy Working Families Party both swallowed hard and endorsed his bid for governor. But until recently, he’s styled himself as anything but their champion. While they marshaled forces to push for the renewal of an income tax surcharge on New Yorkers earning over $200,000 a year, tying the issue to the governor’s proposed school aid cuts, Cuomo has stuck to his call to abolish the tax and cut spending, to cheers from the New York State Conservative Party, and a somewhat cynical embrace from leading national conservatives including Chris Christie and Sarah Palin.

“We have to be careful [about] the rhetoric that’s sweeping the country right now," said State Senator Bill Perkins, a Harlem Democrat. "Wisconsin, they’re trying to outdo each other to see who can be more draconian. I’m hoping he can turn that rhetoric around and better represent the realities that some of us have in our respective communities. It’s not a leadership role that he’s playing, as far as I’m concerned, in echoing that rhetoric.”

Last week, Cuomo began to spin away from it. At an event on Long Island, when asked, he affirmed the collective bargaining rights of New York’s public sector and said there is “all the difference in the world” between his approach and Walker’s.

“My approach has been, we’re in a tough place, it’s a tough time, let’s all come together and work this out together,” Cuomo said.

“I am a long-term supporter of the labor movement,” Cuomo added. “I think it’s done a lot of good both for its members and for the state. Do we need a recalibration here? Yes. Do we have a deficit? Certainly. Do we need an adjustment of wages, in my opinion, pension costs? No doubt.”

That might mean some changes to the last-in, first-out system for laying off teachers, where Cuomo has provided wiggle room. Or maybe some changes to the Triborough Amendment, a favorite conservative punching bag, which keeps public-employee contracts in effect after their expiration, even when that means paying out scheduled longevity raises.

Cuomo hasn't crossed those lines yet. If he does, there might be more of a response from the labor movement. Hughes promised as much in his speech, delivered to a room that included several members of the State Assembly and Senate, lunching on salad and chicken. Though, again, Hughes did so without making mention of the governor, directly.

“I want to say this to the elected officials that are here: We are your allies in this fight, and we will do what we have to do to move this forward, but we expect you to stand with us,” he said. “It is not easy to stand with the labor movement today. Those who do are ridiculed in the editorial pages. Ridiculed! We appreciate what has to be done, but yet, our expectations are higher today than they have been before. Everyone who is a natural ally of this movement will be called upon to stand with this movement.”

Jimmy Vielkind is a political reporter for the Albany Times Union and principal contributor to its Capitol Confidential blog