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Cash-strapped Hudson Valley counties at stalemate with employees union

Karen Pecora, president of the CSEA union, speaks

Karen Pecora, president of the CSEA union, speaks before lawmakers and residents at a hearing on Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino's proposed budget in Mamaroneck Village Hall. (Nov. 20, 2012) Photo Credit: John Dyer

Republican county executives in the Hudson Valley are getting nowhere with the Civil Service Employees Association, or CSEA, as they struggle to keep their budgets balanced.

In Westchester County, where the CSEA represents about 3,200 workers, the union is turning to "fact finding" by the state agency that monitors negotiations with public employees, indicating that talks with the county have broken down.

"They want us to concede on all their things but not have job protection," CSEA president Karen Pecora said Wednesday, referring to the union's desire for a contract that would bar officials from laying off public workers.

In Orange County, County Executive Edward Diana on Thursday declared that his negotiations with the CSEA are at an impasse, a move that will prompt the state Public Employment Relations Board, or PERB, to appoint a mediator.

And in Rockland County, where the CSEA last summer signed a labor contract that remains in effect until 2014, the union earlier in February filed a lawsuit against the county for closing an employee pharmacy.

In each case, county officials are running into opposition from local chapters of the CSEA because they want to curb government spending at the expense of labor, while resisting tax hikes.

Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino has demanded that CSEA members pay a premium for health care they now receive for free. When the union refused to accept his demands, he laid off around 70 workers to help balance a $1.7 billion budget for 2013.

Rockland County Executive C. Scott Vanderhoef conceded a degree of job security to the union, but then closed the Dr. Robert L. Yeager Health Center in Pomona, which has provided public workers with prescriptions without co-pays for 36 years. The $2 million in savings were needed to chip away at the county's $96 million budget shortfall, Vanderhoef said.

In declaring his talks with the union at an impasse, Diana cited Orange County's tough fiscal situation, saying taxpayers couldn't afford the union's demands for paid lunch hours, salary increases and other perks.

"After 15 negotiation sessions, I am very disappointed that the CSEA has not delivered a reasonable contract proposal that takes into account the state of the economy, county finances and the financial situation at Valley View," said Diana, referring to the cash-strapped county nursing home.

The union has said Diana is stalling to avoid making the hard choices that would solve Valley View's budget troubles.

"The county has yet to present any meaningful proposals pertaining to Valley View," said CSEA Southern Region president Billy Riccaldo. "Today, we call on the county executive to put an end to his stall tactics. We're ready, willing and able to meet for as long as necessary to reach an agreement."

Donna Greene, a spokeswoman for Astorino, said Westchester County officials are now waiting on word from PERB officials regarding whom the agency might appoint to a fact-finding panel to assess negotiating positions. The PERB is a public agency that administers New York State's Taylor Law. Passed in 1967, the law makes strikes by public employees illegal in the state and provides several mechanisms for the resolution of disputes.

Once a fact-finding panel is appointed, its members have 80 days to submit a proposed deal to both sides, according to PERB's website.

If that bid for a resolution fails, the county Board of Legislators -- in any one of the three counties -- could conduct a hearing on the labor dispute and suggest its own solution. If that step also should fail, the union's old contract remains in place until both sides come back to the negotiating table and start over.

The CSEA's negotiations with Westchester County are indirectly linked to a lawsuit the union has filed against the county executive's budget, which the union says unfairly laid off about 70 workers. A State Supreme Court justice in White Plains is due to render a judgment on that case in coming weeks.

CSEA spokeswoman Jessica Ladlee said the three Republican county executives are unfairly exploiting tough economic times for their own political benefit.

"These are jobs that people didn't want to take when there were other jobs out there that paid much higher salaries and had lucrative benefits," Ladlee said. "Now, with unemployment at a higher rate, people are frustrated. They bought into this idea that the public employees are the problem, when they've been doing their jobs all along."

E.J. McMahon, a senior fellow at the right-leaning Manhattan Institute, questioned why unions should keep their generous benefits when taxpayers are falling behind economically.

"Unions are themselves political organizations," McMahon said. "Unions are not like the League of Women Voters. Unions are organized for one reason, and one reason only: to relentlessly pursue the interests of their members while being oblivious to everyone else."

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