Occupy Wall Street supporters say he is another Scott Walker. The New York Post’s editorial board wishes he was. With rumors of Governor Andrew Cuomo contemplating a presidential run in 2016, many wonder if his unabashedly pro-business agenda is setting the standard for the 21st century Democratic leader, one who doesn’t need the support of one of the party’s most reliable bases of allies, public sector unions.
The Cuomo administration and the business-backed Committee to Save New York argue that weakening labor’s hand at the bargaining table will aid the economy, but at first glance it still seems a stretch to compare this to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who provoked massive labor demonstrations last year when he moved to outlaw collective bargaining rights for most state workers. Yet, Cuomo—unlike his father, the generally progressive former Governor Mario Cuomo—has been a powerful force in crippling the state’s biggest challenger to the corporate lobby. (Readers should know that this writer earns a living as an editor for a city union, although it deals with City Hall, not Albany.)
As labor observers see it, Cuomo—unlike Walker—may have respect for the basic framework of collective bargaining, but he has used the economic downturn as a pretext to successfully reduce pension benefits for new workers, implement wage freezes, and reduce school board revenues. And if he gets re-elected with the blessing of commercial interests, what would stop the state from giving workers another economic haircut?
Edmund McMahon, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, downplays Cuomo’s reforms, saying that he has only introduced modest gains in terms of reducing pension benefits for new state workers. McMahon believes that Cuomo uses union criticism as political capital to advertise his commitment to pro-business reform, but that far more must be done to help struggling municipalities.
Part of that would be allowing cities to circumvent the Triborough Amendment of the state’s Taylor Law, which allows for contract terms to stay in effect after those contracts expire. It is meant to maintain labor peace, whereas the Taylor Law’s central component is the prohibition of strikes by public workers.
Upstate school boards and mayors have claimed that rising labor costs are driving them toward bankruptcy. According to McMahon, “The problem is he’s not giving them more flexibility to manage their own problems. They are not just asking for more aid. They’ve been asking quite loudly, and they’re mostly Democrats, for a repeal of Triborough.”
The pressure on the governor has some unions worried that the state could introduce financial control boards that could undermine this pro-union aspect of the state’s labor code, similar to what Republican Governor Rick Snyder has done in Michigan. Both Cuomo and State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli have reportedly considered the use of such control boards.
“We remain concerned about any financial control boards being able to come and rip up collective bargaining agreements,” said Arthur Cheliotes, president of Communications Workers of America Local 1180. “When Wall Street was going through its agonies and there were these great losses the contracts for these bonuses were considered sacred. Collective bargaining agreements don’t count.”
McMahon noted that Cuomo’s biggest accomplishment against state labor was imposing a 2 percent property tax cap, which has angered the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) because it robs school districts of revenue, thereby raising tensions between the school boards and teachers unions when it comes time for contract talks. It has also led to job losses; layoffs hit three percent of teachers statewide last year. As CUNY labor historian Josh Freeman, who focuses on labor history, said, “There’s a big problem where you have school boards that are not seriously engaging in collective bargaining for years at a time.”
Despite that, NYSUT spokesperson Carl Korn downplayed his criticism of Cuomo, telling the Brooklyn Rail that “the Cuomo administration has respected the role of collective bargaining,” noting that he hasn’t threatened this basic right like Walker had.
For Stanley Aronowitz, a CUNY sociologist who has written extensively about the American labor movement, positions such as those advanced by Korn actually illustrate that the governor’s plan to defang unions is working.
“The Democrats are smart enough to know that if you maintain union recognition and collective bargaining, you can always get the unions to grovel,” Aronowitz says. “It’s not a good idea to get the unions in the opposition. And that’s much cleverer than what Scott Walker did in Wisconsin.”
In other words, Cuomo hasn’t outlawed collective bargaining for public-sector unions, but he hasn’t had to. Using the threat of massive state layoffs, he forced the state’s two biggest unions—the Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA) and the Public Employees Federation (PEF)—to settle contracts that provide 0 percent wage increases in their first three years.
Many unionists, it should be noted, believe that wage freezes—when adjusted for inflation and accompanied by increased health-care contributions—are net pay cuts. A decline in take-home pay for these workers is considered an even harsher blow in upstate areas, where the death of manufacturing has left the public sector as a primary source of middle-class income.
So unpopular were these concessionary deals that in the case of PEF, members originally voted down the terms and later voted President Ken Brynien out of office. In the case of CSEA President Danny Donohue, the flack from the wage freeze negotiations contributed to his defeat last June in his bid for the presidency of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Those deals have also set in motion a dismal contract pattern for other state unions, such as the Professional Staff Congress, which represents CUNY professors, who have been without a contract for more than a year. The contract for Transport Workers Union Local 100, which represents more than 30,000 subway and bus workers, expired in January.
Without all of the anti-union theatrics of Walker, Cuomo has been able to divide the labor movement against itself. In fact, labor’s other big sector—the construction unions—support Cuomo and the Committee to Save New York;Gary LaBarbera, a former Teamster official and current president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, sits on its advisory board. This is because building trades unions work closely with their private-sector employers.
Remember, of course, that Cuomo came into power with muted labor support. Some unions sat on their hands, but no labor leader led the charge against him. In fact, the labor-backed Working Families Party (WFP) endorsed Cuomo in order to ensure that it would get enough votes to keep its coveted line on the ballot. In the end, the WFP, whose stated mission is to pressure the Democrats into moving leftward, missed a crucial moment to do so. That a pro-labor Green Party candidate ended up scoring the necessary votes to secure that party’s ballot line illustrated the weakness of the WFP’s argument.
Cuomo went on to stoke the class flames last year when he initially promised not to extend the Millionaires’ Tax after it would expire, while at the same time taking on unions, blaming their members’ pay for the state’s budget woes instead of focusing on unrealized tax revenue from the state’s wealthiest. Cuomo compared his unpopular stance with that of his father’s position against the death penalty. The governor and state lawmakers came to compromise on a higher tax bracket after protests initiated by the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Fast-forward to today, and unions are still bankrolling Cuomo, with law enforcement, city sanitation, and hotel workers leading labor’s contributions in the most recent filings. Meanwhile, the Committee to Save New York spends millions to promote the governor’s pro-business agenda.
Even if the unions stand to gain little from the party, their loyalty is part of a tradition. The labor movement, for the most part, stands with the Democrats, and doesn’t isolate itself by rejecting electoral politics or casting protest votes through third-party candidates. Still, Cuomo’s position is a study in the Democratic Party’s gradual rejection of its traditional labor base and its move towards a pro-corporate agenda.
Union supporters cheered Bill Clinton’s rousing speech at the Democratic National Convention this summer, even though he was largely responsible for the rapid decline of industrial jobs as result of NAFTA’s implementation in 1994. Labor united to campaign for President Barack Obama, even though he offered no support for union demonstrators in Wisconsin, and that it was educational policies implemented under his Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, that led Chicago teachers to go on strike this September.
Cuomo’s alliance with business and its assault on labor, and labor’s tepid response, is just another continuation of that trend. “The unions tragically supported him in his last election because the unions are dedicated to the Democratic Party,” Aronowitz says, and they remain so, “whether they’re getting screwed or not.”
ARI PAUL has covered labor and politics for the Nation, the Guardian, the Forward, AlterNet and many other outlets.