Standoff benefits neither PEF nor Cuomo

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo introduces former President New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo introduces former President Bill Clinton during a New York Open for Business Statewide Conference at the Empire State Plaza Convention Center in Albany. (Sept. 27, 2011) Photo Credit: AP

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Dan Janison Melville. N.Y. Tuesday January 26, 2010. Daniel Janison,

Dan Janison has been a reporter at Newsday since 1997, initially as a staff writer for the New ...

As frequent political allies, the largest and second-largest labor unions in the state workforce often get mentioned in tandem around Albany by their well-known acronyms CSEA and PEF.

But if the distinction between them ever had an impact, here it is.

New York got a political jolt this week when it was announced that members of the Public Employees Federation had rejected a contract deal broadly similar to the very pact that only last month the Civil Service Employees Association overwhelmingly ratified.

The glaring questions are why and what happens next -- since it was the prevailing design of both bargaining agreements to trade a no-layoff pledge and some monetary improvement for furloughs, higher health insurance payments and wage freezes.

CSEA, the larger organization, represents 66,000 state employees, plus another 200,000 with different contracts in local governments, school districts and the private sector. PEF has 56,000 members, mostly in state employment. The two unions have different national affiliations, too, and PEF seems to have put more of its internal fights on public display over the decades.

Beyond size and style, however, the difference most relevant to the current Albany crisis rests in the status of the employees they represent.

PEF is a white-collar union whose higher-salaried members are described as "professional, scientific and technical employees," as compared with the bluer-collar CSEA.

Danny Donohue, CSEA president since 1994, started out in the 1960s as an attendant at the Central Islip Psychiatric Center; Kenneth Brynien, PEF president since 2006 -- who hails from Massapequa Park -- has a background as a psychologist in what is now called the Office for People With Developmental Disabilities.

"We represent attorneys, accountants, doctors, engineers," said Darcy Wells, PEF spokeswoman. "We had almost 100 meetings across the state. Our members picked apart the agreement, did calculations, asked questions and really analyzed it."

Among the varied results, some members concluded that the concessions such as higher health payments and benefits such as lump-sum bonuses affected them, by proportion, more negatively than they did CSEA.

Now, having hailed Donohue for his leadership in helping produce a deal they touted as a "win-win," Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's aides slam Brynien for what threatens to be an uncharacteristic "lose-lose."

PEF members would lose jobs -- with 3,500 layoffs now in the pipeline. And barring a negotiated reversal, Cuomo not only loses the political plaudit of averting layoffs but faces a complicated "bumping" process under civil-service rules that cannot help -- and could hurt -- day-to-day operations of state agencies such as the Office of Mental Health and the correction system.

State Operations director Howard Glaser said PEF's vote of 19,629 against and 16,906 in favor "represents a failure by PEF's leadership to effectively communicate the benefits of the contract to its members as CSEA's leadership did."

The implicit complaint from the governor's office seems to be that Brynien agreed to send to membership a pact that he should have either been able to sell, or else know he could not. For his part, Brynien has responded: "The decision to reject the tentative agreement was made by rank-and-file members who clearly feel they are being asked to sacrifice more than others."

The politics of this standoff becomes a dense thicket. Cuomo wants a revote; PEF wants a renegotiation.

Neither was in sight Thursday as layoff preparations advanced as promised.

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