State workers fill the lawn outside the Capitol during a...

State workers fill the lawn outside the Capitol during a rally in Albany. (June 10, 2011) Credit: Albany Times Union/Paul Buckowski

If the events leading up to layoff notices going out to 3,496 members of the New York Public Employees Federation last week sound familiar, it's because they are.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo isn't alone in seeking concessions from the state workforce to balance the budget as the weak economy limps on. How governors across the country have approached rising labor costs has as much to do with local politics as economics.

"The states are squeezed and they're looking for savings, and one of the places almost all states are turning to is the very high cost of employee compensation," said James Sherk, a senior policy analyst in labor economics at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. "For a very long time, government employees have been receiving above-market benefits."

On Tuesday, PEF, which represents 56,000 white-collar workers, voted down a five-year contract offer that called for pay freezes for the first three years, higher insurance premiums and furloughs.

Cuomo said Friday that he was willing to resume talks, but that the union would have to come up with the savings.

"I'm open to tweaks," Cuomo said during a radio interview. "If tweak means I have to find more money from taxpayers, that's not a tweak."

Union president Ken Brynien responded in a statement that workers were "anxious to discuss with the governor's negotiators how we can reach an agreement my members are willing to ratify while preserving state services and meeting the savings the state requires."

Cuomo's approach borrows from the playbooks of other governors, but he has tried to take a fiscally conservative stance without demonizing public-sector workers. Unlike Republican governors in Wisconsin and Ohio, he didn't eliminate or curtail collective bargaining rights. And unlike Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy, a Democrat, he didn't raise taxes while asking union members to contribute more.

Cuomo also took a different tack than his Republican counterpart in New Jersey, Chris Christie, who got the Democratic legislature to raise union health care contributions via legislation rather than through negotiation, as had been past practice.

"Governor Cuomo's approach is in between," said Robert Ward, deputy director of the Rockefeller Institute, a government-policy think tank in Albany. "The governor has made a higher priority of protecting taxpayers than of protecting public-sector workers."

The governor has made a conscious decision that "taxes in New York are already too high and he's not going to raise them any further," Ward said. "Most taxpayers are not particularly disposed to support compensation increases for state and local government workers."Unions play a big role in state politics through campaign contributions. Unions gave $265.6 million to candidates in statewide elections across the nation in 2010, according to Follow The Money, a website run by the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Most of that money, 70.2 percent, went to Democratic candidates while 4.9 percent went to Republicans.

Wisconsin and Ohio this year enacted laws that took away public employees' right to collectively bargain on health care benefits and pensions. Police and firefighters were exempted from the law in Wisconsin, but not in Ohio.

"It's a case of really strongly anti-union governors using the budget crisis as a way to transform their labor relations either by wiping out or sharply limiting collective bargaining rights," said Richard McGahey, an economics and public policy professor at The New School.

Sherk said Republicans have no reason not to take on unions since the 2010 election, in which the party made big electoral gains. "Republicans, because they don't owe the unions anything, are willing to be more aggressive," he said.

As Democratic lawmakers try to balance spending cuts without alienating unions, there's little risk those unions would defect to the Republican party. But there still could be consequences at the ballot box.

"It's hard to see in today's Republican Party where there's any place for unions to go," McGahey said. "The bigger danger is if they lose enthusiasm, people stay home, they don't provide ground troops and funding for legislative campaigns and their voters don't get mobilized."



What's at risk


Jobs that would be lost in the region if the layoffs of Public Employee Federation members go ahead:

Nassau: 22

Suffolk: 145

Queens: 87

Brooklyn: 74

Manhattan: 345

Bronx: 49

Staten Island: 129

Westchester: 49Source: New York State governor's office

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