As he watches the continuing political turmoil over Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker's push to weaken the power of unions, E.J. McMahon, head of a leading conservative think tank in New York, is hoping that the political winds will shift dramatically here, too.
Maybe someday, he and others in New York acknowledged, but not now.
While Walker is trying to take away public employee unions' rights to collective bargaining, in an effort to prevent a budget crisis, political observers do not expect a similar showdown here. Not when New York has a Democratic governor in Andrew M. Cuomo, who described himself to Newsday last week as a "longtime supporter of the labor movement."
Cuomo is pushing for a one-year pay freeze for state employees, but hardly pursuing Wisconsin's proposals to bar unions from being able to automatically collect dues or require members to vote every year to keep their union going.
The difference between the debates in the two states amounts to cost-cutting compared with "union busting," said Robert Ward, deputy director of the Robert A. Nelson Rockefeller Institute of Government at SUNY-Albany.
Ward said no elected Democrat in New York is likely to fundamentally attack unions' ability to survive, not only because of the financial and on-the-ground backing that labor members give the party during campaigns, but because of the Democrats' ideological support for union issues.
And while Walker has the advantage of GOP control of both houses of Wisconsin's legislature, any similar proposal here would face having to pass the heavily Democratic State Assembly. Republicans also hold only a slim 32-30 majority in the Senate.
Yesterday, rallies in New York City and many across the country were held to support the protesters in Wisconsin.
McMahon, executive director of the Empire Center for New York State Policy, said, "The Republican political structure in the Northeast has tended to be . . . noncombative when it comes to unions."
He noted that a Republican New York governor, Nelson Rockefeller, signed the Public Employees Fair Employment Act in 1967 that gave public employees bargaining rights in the state. Another Republican, Gov. George Pataki, sweetened pensions for public employees.
But McMahon said a movement to rein in collective bargaining powers could develop if the state's economy continues to falter and unions are seen as not doing their part to bridge the budget gap. If the choice is framed as either cutting costs by weakening collective bargaining powers or cutting services, McMahon said, "people would rather see police patrols."
Richard Iannuzzi, president of New York State United Teachers, noted that state employees agreed to a new tier system in 2009, in which new state and local employees will have to pay more of their retirement costs and work longer to be vested in the pension plan.
Sherry Halbrook, spokeswoman for the New York State Public Employees Federation, said the union wants to see the state make other cost savings besides zeroing in on state workers. The union last summer released a report showing the state on average paid consultants more per hour than state employees who do the same work.
"It's hard for our members to say we'll give up a day of pay a month, when our members see that waste," Halbrook said, adding that once the state solves those problems, "our members will be happy to step up."