NY Pension Cuts Fuel Insurgent Public Employees

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has led an assault on state employees, spearheading a recent drive for a pension cut. A new caucus inside an influential public sector union is determined to roll back the attacks and re-energize a demoralized workforce. Photo: Hudson Valley Labor.

New York state public employees, like their compatriots across the U.S., are in the gunsights of politicians eager to appease irate taxpayers by slashing workers’ pay and benefits.

A new caucus inside a large and influential public sector union is determined to roll back the attacks and re-energize a demoralized workforce.

The assault on state employees has been led by Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo, who after demanding contract concessions, spearheaded the drive for a pension cut. “Tier 6” is an additional lower pension level for new hires in the public sector.

Tier 6 raises workers’ retirement plan contributions on a sliding scale, ranging from 3 percent for those earning up to $45,000 a year to 6 percent for those at $100,000.

The new plan also raises the retirement age by one year, to 63. Workers who retire early will collect pensions that are 6.5 percent lower per year, by tinkering with the formula to exclude much overtime. Virtually eliminated is the possibility of retiring at 55, which has been the case for current longtime employees under Tier 1.

The vote to approve pension cuts in the state Senate took place without Democrats present, ostensibly due to their protest of redistricting plans. In the Democratic-dominated Assembly, the vote was 95-44.

The Public Employees Federation, which represents 55,000 professional and technical workers, opposed Tier 6, but was unable to stop it. Rank-and-file PEF activists were confounded when their leaders scheduled an opposition rally one day after the legislature’s vote.

All Part of the Plan

The pension cuts were part of a campaign by Cuomo to burnish his resume as a leader ready to take on public employee unions and bring them to heel. He seems to have the 2016 presidential race in mind.

Cuomo’s attitudes toward public workers were no secret in the run-up to the 2010 election, but despite this, the PEF leadership pushed his endorsement through the union’s executive board, telling them that the governor was just going to eliminate archaic commissions and public authorities, not jobs at state agencies.

“Andrew Cuomo earned our endorsement because of his positions on two key issues for us—reducing the state's wasteful use of consultants, and his plan to rein in hundreds of unaccountable public authorities that are packed with patronage appointments,” said PEF President Kenneth Brynien at an August 2010 convention.

PEF members say they are unaware of any major Cuomo initiatives on this score.

Round Two

The pension cuts Cuomo pushed through the legislature followed a round of contract concessions he extracted in last year’s talks. The deal included nine days of unpaid furloughs in the first two years, zero percent raises for three years, and health care takeaways. Cuomo claimed the concessions helped save the state $400 million.

The increased health care costs are already proving unaffordable for many members at the lower end of the pay scale. The union also forfeited millions in annual education and training funds the state formerly provided its members, which paid for college tuition and workshop reimbursement.

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The largest groups of public employees in New York State are divided into two unions, PEF and the Civil Service Employees Association, which represents mainly blue-collar workers. CSEA ratified the Cuomo-backed contract first.

PEF members initially voted it down. It took major arm-twisting by PEF leaders and threats of layoffs to get virtually the same contract passed in a second vote.

Before the first PEF contract vote, opposition emerged. It has now morphed into a full slate of opposition candidates, known as NY Union Proud, who will oppose the incumbents in PEF’s June election.

The slate includes a diverse mix of young and seasoned leaders. While they are based in the Albany and New York City areas, they have received enthusiastic backing from PEF members in the Buffalo and Adirondack regions. The slate is headed by Susan Kent, who represents education department workers on the union’s executive board.

NY Union Proud points to the concessions last year as a major failing of current leaders. They say the incumbents hastily repackaged the concession deal with minor changes after the first vote and launched a full-court press for a yes vote.

They criticize those leaders for promising that voting for concessions would “save jobs” and “prevent layoffs.” “Faced with a difficult Hobson's choice, with their leaders in full-fledged retreat, PEF members ratified the contract,” their statement reads.

But not even six months after ratification, the no-layoff assurances have already proved hollow. PEF members in the offices of Children and Family Services, Mental Health, and Persons with Developmental Disabilities as well as the State University of New York now face the unemployment line.

“Job losses caused by cutbacks tell only a part of the story,” the slate said in a statement. “On top of the profound disrespect heaped on public workers, PEF members continue to fall farther behind their counterparts in the private sector when matched for age, gender and education.”

The opposition slate pledges to “ensure that PEF endorses only those candidates for political office who have acted in our members’ best interest.” They also identify privatization as a major issue, promising to expose the abuses and inefficiencies it causes.

Hot Seat

PEF has a history of voting out incumbents: Four presidents in its history lost their first re-election campaigns. There is also a tradition of opposition groups, starting with the Statewide Coalition for a Democratic Union in the early ’80s.

Political commentators in Albany note that the PEF opposition has already impacted current leaders’ positions. The incumbents were forced to take a more combative public stance on Tier 6, launching an ad campaign and scheduling the belated protest rally.

The Union Proud slate said that if similar efforts had been put into educating and mobilizing the members ahead of contract negotiations, a better contract deal could have been possible.

It remains to be seen how much traction the opposition will get, given members’ demoralization following the vote-till-you-get-it-right contract ratification. Nonetheless, the emergence of the Union Proud slate is a sign of growing resistance to the attacks on state employees.


Proud2BPef (not verified) | 04/04/12

Mr. Sheridan attacks the messenger. Labor Notes is not to blame for PEF's poor leadership.

The article describes the frustrations PEF members feel and why there is support for an insurgent election campaign.

When the membership roundly rejected the contract concessions, Cuomo demanded a "do-over." The Brynien leadership faced a choice: mobilize the membership for a protracted fight, or give the governor what he wanted. They rushed to meet the Governor's demands.

The Brynien team not only endorsed the Governor's demands but used the Governor's very arguments against the members. We were forced us to embrace the false choices of concession bargaining: heads you win, tails I lose. The Governor's team had bargained in bad faith the entire time, with repeated public threats of layoffs if concessions weren't given, and not even meeting at the bargaining table. The PEF leadership quietly waited for the phone to ring.

The realistic plan the insurgents have articulated is to empower the members to be the union, to lead them to mobilize and fight. The Brynien team doesn't really believe this is possible to do and that is the real cause of the demoralization and the "critical time" for PEF. The problem is not that a challenger thinks they have a vision for the union that Brynien lacks - and it certainly isn't Labor Notes.


Phillip Sheridan (not verified) | 04/04/12

We all understand the frustration with the contract and the insurgents that you support seek to exploit the anger, and rather than directing it at the governor they seek to use it to further their self serving politics.

A history lesson on the insurgents:

The top candidates from the insurgent caucus opposed the No Layoff Agreement that provided job security for all PEF members for a year and a half.

They opposed the severance/retirement package that would allow members to leave state service so the need for layoffs would be reduced.

They were willing to open up the 2007-11 contract to offer the concession of lag pay (the Brynien administration held fast and gave up nothing by negotiating something the legislature was going to pass anyway).

Opposing everything with no constructive solution is not a platform.

Some have characterized these insurgents as PEF's version of the "Tea Party" just a lot of anger and no solutions, and an "I got mine screw you" attitude.

This is not what unionism is about! True unionists believe that the power of a union comes when members are united for a cause, and that an injury to one is an injury to all.

There has never been any attempt by the insurgents to work to mobilize members to do anything but defeat the contract, and there was never any plan beyond that.

It was and is clear that the layoffs would have happened, PEF would most likely been driven to the same or a worse contract through the budgetary process. As evidence of this all you need to do is point to the passage of Tier VI, with all of public sector labor in New York State aligned against this and the National AFL-CIO opposed Cuomo still got what he wanted (it should also be noted that PEF was the first union to do a television campaign against the governor's budget, done not because of insurgent pressure but it is the right thing to do for members and the administration's SOP).

Now to correct your distorted view of PEF history:

When the members rejected the contract Cuomo did demand a do-over but the Brynien administration established immediately that the same contract would not be put to the membership for a ratification vote.

Unfortunately, still negotiating with the threat of layoffs looming PEF did what it could to improve the contract and in fact did negotiate a contract that was better than the previous one and better than the pattern CSEA established.

Perhaps you should look up "bad faith bargaining" in a legal dictionary, what the Cuomo administration did was a ruthless strategy but it wasn't bad faith bargaining. If the Brynien administration could craft a winning legal argument to stop the imposition of furloughs, it would stand to reason that they would have taken a run at Cuomo's negotiating tactics if they too were illegal.

I believe we are in agreement that the members of PEF are its strength we are only in disagreement about who is the most able to lead them.

We have a choice:

Ken Brynien and his administration who have 6 years and more of success gaining benefits such as salary increases through parity steps for members, increased location pay and the job security needed to enjoy those hard earned benefits.

Or, his opponents who have no record, and a strategy to simply reject everything with full knowledge of the devastating consequences on the membership.


Phillip Sheridan (not verified) | 04/03/12

The article is biased against the incumbent officers.

First off the statement "Rank-and-file PEF activists were confounded when their leaders scheduled an opposition rally one day after the legislature’s vote." is inaccurate, the rally was billed not as a pension rally but a budget rally, tier 6 was one of many issues that affected PEF members, also it should be noted that the pension votes were taken at 3 and 5 o'clock in the morning the day the rally was scheduled and the vote was rushed through as a part of the redistricting deal governor Cuomo was holding over the legislature's collective heads.

Regarding the Cuomo endorsement, it is the union's responsibility to put the membership in the best position to achieve gains, clearly Cuomo's opponent was not going to win. Candidate Cuomo's platform included points regarding reducing privatization and eliminating wasteful authorities and shadow government. These have been priorities of PEF for 15 years. Hindsight is 20-20 these same insurgents could be making virtually the same case if PEF hadn't endorsed the governor; that is "if PEF had only endorsed the governor he would have treated us better."

As for the "Hobsons choice" around layoffs 3,500-4,000 member jobs were on the line there was no qustion about that. The insurgents' circular logic that called for the elimination of 3,500-4000 members jobs because the layoff protections weren't strong enough shows the lack of understanding of the issues. The insurgents would have you believe and your reporter was so willing to write it, that thousands of jobs were lost or at risk even though the contract had job protections. The fact is that layoffs have been minimized to the point where even with the exceptions allowed for in the contract, fewer than 50 members have been laid off, not to mention the fact that these were the result of the budget enacted six month before the contract was agreed to and ratified by the membership; that is 50 out of 54,000 members.

The insurgents have no realistic plan to address the issues that they want to hang around the incumbent's necks, and ignore the progress in such areas as salary, wage parity, location pay, and workplace issues such as mandated overtime, etc.

Their strategy it seems is to divide the union at a critical time and allow governor Cuomo to exploit the weakness the insurgents have created.

My disappointment comes from a newsletter that claims to be trying to put the "movement back in the labor movement" being the vehicle to ultimately destroy the progress PEF has made by helping to divide the the PEF membership with one sided stories such as this one.