Governor Andrew Cuomo used a phrase the other day that ought to put a chill down the spine of every taxpayer. He said that the state was “functionally bankrupt.” The wording was not meant as a scare tactic. It was merely a statement of the obvious.
Unfortunately, not everybody got the point. Two of the state’s largest public employee unions, the Public Employees Federation and the Civil Service Employees Association, have been working without a contract since the end of March. Leaders of the two unions have made it clear that they intend to seek raises for their members as part of a new three-year contract, even though the governor has said he needs to cut labor costs by nearly a half-billion dollars.
Common sense, however, has not taken flight from Albany. The leaders of a small union that represents about 1,100 workers in the state’s parks and university systems have agreed to a new contract that will keep salaries flat and will require increases in worker contributions for health care insurance. The leaders of Council 82, the union in question, clearly understand the implications of Mr. Cuomo’s dire assessment.
But their colleagues do not, and they apparently are prepared to work behind the scenes to persuade Council 82’s rank and file to reject the contract. The bigger unions fear that if Council 82 goes along with the plan and therefore demonstrates some appreciation of the state’s grave fiscal condition, then they will look bad by continuing to hold out for higher salaries and no givebacks to help the state balance its books.
With any luck, members of Council 82 will ratify the contract and be done with it. That would be an extraordinary and generous gesture by the union.
But the leaders of PEF and CSEA apparently are preparing for a brutal slog with Mr. Cuomo, perhaps thinking that as a Democrat, the governor has a soft spot in his heart for public-employee unions. And maybe he does, considering how much those unions helped his father’s campaigns in the 1980s. But that was then, and this is now. And this Governor Cuomo has a potential catastrophe on his hands. Sentiment has no place in the heart of a politician with budgets to close.
Mr. Cuomo very likely will have a much harder time with other unions in the weeks and months to come. The common sense that Council 82’s leaders exhibited during their negotiations with the state may yet be in short supply. If so, the governor now has no choice but to stand his ground, for he can’t offer raises to unions like PEF or CSEA after denying them to Council 82.
This isn’t going to be pretty. But it is absolutely necessary. New York simply can’t afford the workforce it has now. Unions have to face that reality, or see their numbers shrink in a hurry.