NY Pension Cuts Fuel Insurgent Public Employees
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.
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.
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.
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.