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Editorial: New union hires will feel the pain in future contracts

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, announces that Suffolk

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, announces that Suffolk County police will resume patrols on the LIE and Sunrise Highway in September, during a press conference at his office in Hauppauge while PBA president Noel DiGerolamo, looks on. (Aug. 2, 2012) Photo Credit: James Carbone

In tough collective bargaining, there's inevitably a class of workers giving the most: the ones who haven't been hired yet.

Recent contract negotiations in New York share a common thread: Union leaders are agreeing to lower pay and reduce benefits for future hires so that existing members can hang on to their full salaries and generous benefits, including health care coverage and pensions.

Like it or not, those are the rules right now, even if they aren't written down anywhere.

We can thank Albany for creating this uneven playing field through arbitration and the Triborough Amendment of the state Taylor Law. Over the years, these provisions have often done more to prolong, and in some cases even discourage, productive talks than to encourage a serious give-and-take.

Now that many local governments are confronting huge projected deficits born of past budget sins, leaders are leaning heavily on their unionized workers for givebacks. The result is that it's the most vulnerable and least expensive workers who are offered up as a sacrifice.

For taxpayers, the savings do come eventually -- but rarely in time to fill budget holes like the ones now faced by counties including Rockland and Nassau, or cities such as Yonkers, Syracuse, Rochester and others around the state.

The truth is that the lower wages and diminished benefits will hardly reduce job applications: Ask anyone interested in working for the Suffolk County police, Westchester County corrections or New York State. While not as generous as even a few years ago, the perks are still solid, especially compared to the private sector.

Suffolk provides a useful example. After two decades of failed talks, the county and its Police Benevolent Association last week reached a 10-year deal that included employee health care contributions and modest raises following a few years of zero increases. The real "get" for the county was that new employees would pay 15 percent of their health premiums, and starting pay for new officers would be frozen at $42,000. It would take new hires 12 years to reach top pay, as opposed to five years under the last deal.

That contract was groundbreaking for both sides in that they actually reached an accord without arbitration. Even with the accord, Suffolk still has budget problems.

In Westchester, the corrections and Teamsters unions this year had a first of their own by agreeing to contribute a little for health care costs. But in the case of new hires, with lower starting salaries, workers at the county jail would have to ante up more for health care: 20 percent from the get-go. It's supposed to be a model for the county's five other unions, notably its largest, the Civil Service Employees Association.

And who can forget Tier VI, New York State's attempt to lower pension costs for many public employees? It raised the retirement age for new hires by three years to 65, required a 6 percent pension contribution from workers for their entire career, and eliminated an overtime sweetener from a worker's pension calculation.

It's supposed to save billions, but since many in this class haven't even started yet, it may be decades before a significant impact is felt.

Labor experts say this "eating your young" phenomenon has been going on for years among unions in the weakened private sector, but more public workers are now giving up salary and benefits for future employees to appease municipalities that need savings -- not to mention a public weary of paying for perks that often exceed their own.

Until the rules are changed, the workers with the least to give will give the most.