Over the weekend Governor Cuomo appliquéd another feather to his pith helmet as he trailblazed his way to another startling Albany victory. He managed to get the Public Employees Federation to sign a five-year agreement that included big concessions from the union in exchange for protection from layoffs that the governor has been threatening. Largely mirroring the deal he struck with the Civil Service Employees Association last month, the agreement had the union agreeing to hold off on across-the-board raises for the next three years and increasing employee contributions toward health-care services. All told, the Federation represents about 55,000 state workers (the CSEA represents slightly more than that, and together that's well more than half of all state employees). The savings represented in both deals is something like $150 million this year and as much as $1.6 billion over five years.
Back in April, our Chris Smith outlined Cuomo's union strategy:
Keeping labor relatively happy, however, helps Cuomo become the leader of a new national Democratic identity, one that contrasts with the Republican right’s union-bashing yet is fiscally conservative and socially progressive. The message is that the unions can be a full partner in the budget-cutting process, not political pariahs, as [Wisconsin Governor] Scott Walker tried to make them. "New York can be a beautiful model, if we get this done, to say, ‘Guys, you used the stick when the carrot really worked,’ " a Cuomo associate says. " ‘Why didn’t you try bringing them in and sitting them down and looking them in the eye and putting out your hand and saying, "We need to do this together"?’ " And if that approach fails, Cuomo has made clear, he’s willing to be tougher than Walker, Christie, or anyone else."
In other words, he planned to invite the unions to the table and work with them for a solution, but the whole time he would carry an awfully big stick. And that's what he did: In the case of the Federation deal, the stick was nasty layoffs. His budget assumed $450 million saved by reducing labor costs, and if he didn't get these concessions he warned that as many as 9,800 layoffs might have been on the horizon. To speed up negotiations, the governor's office sent notice to some 700 Federation members that they'd be laid off shortly if no agreement was reached.
It wasn't pretty, but it was a heck of a lot less ugly than the Wisconsin union scuffles and Chris Christie's pit-bull act with New Jersey teaching unions. And what's more, it went exactly according to Cuomo's progressive austerity plan.