Cuomo and the Cheeseheads: Will Wisconsin’s Union Fight Help Or Hinder New York’s Governor?

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It’s a tantalizing scenario: The nasty labor-government showdowns in Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio embolden New York’s union members to stampede Albany, where Governor Andrew Cuomo is proposing serious cuts to wages and benefits to help close the state’s $10 billion budget deficit. Yet the turmoil in the Midwest is more likely to have the opposite effect, helping Cuomo push New York’s public employee unions into a compromise instead of an all-out fight.


The differing dynamics are partly due to policy choices. Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, Indiana’s Mitch Daniels, and Ohio’s John Kasich are trying to eliminate or limit the ability of public employees to bargain collectively — basically to put the unions out of business. Cuomo merely wants to squeeze their wallets, and he has wisely cast this as a question of numbers, not ideology. Cuomo’s budget calls for $450 million in salary, pension, and retirement concessions from public employees. If not, as a “last resort,” New York’s new governor says he could be forced to lay off up to 9,800 state workers. Any combination will be painful, but it would be well short of the existential threat to labor that is now playing out in the Midwest.

“Look, I am a long-term supporter of the labor movement,” Cuomo told me yesterday after delivering his budget speech in Patchogue. “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, of pension costs? There’s no doubt.” So collective bargaining remains a valid concept? “Certainly.”

New York’s labor leaders are growing anxious as the April 1 state budget deadline approaches; this week, the state's teachers' union launched TV ads arguing for an extension of the “millionaire’s tax” instead of funding cuts that will increase class sizes. But Cuomo’s approach looks increasingly appealing by comparison to Walker’s. “The unions go, ‘Wow, the shit is hitting the fan everywhere,’” a labor-friendly state legislator says. “‘Maybe it’s not the end of the world to do a salary freeze for one year. Maybe it’s not the end of the world to pay some percentage into health care benefits, because we don’t want what’s going on in the rest of the country.’” Cuomo is also benefiting from local fractures — for instance, the city’s teachers’ union needs his help fighting off Mayor Bloomberg’s crusade to end layoffs-by-seniority — and from his own strategic savvy: Instead of confrontation, the governor invited major health care labor leaders to join a Medicaid-trimming task force, gaining their quiescence, at least for now. The group handed in its report today, so its union members may now feel free to criticize any additional cuts Cuomo imposes.

But there’s also an enormous political difference that should help keep the conflagration west of the Hudson. Walker, Daniels, and Kasich are all Republicans riding the right’s labor-demonizing wave. Cuomo is a pragmatic Democrat in a heavily Democratic state. If the governor has any national aspirations, he may try to triangulate like his political father figure, Bill Clinton, but he doesn’t want to completely alienate organized labor. Unless, of course, his 2016 opponent is New Jersey’s Chris Christie. In that matchup the unions would need Andrew Cuomo even more than he needs them. Just like now.