NY threatens to revise state collective bargaining statute

How would you like to work in a job where your pay could rise even if your contract expired, your pension really is guaranteed, and your boss can't - or may not even want to - do anything about it?

For nearly 1.3 million New Yorkers who work in local and state government and in public schools, that's part of life under the landmark Taylor Law that protects the public from shutdown of public service by strikes. Critics contend the collective bargaining law has also eliminated much of the motivation to strike by raising salaries and benefits with little regard for taxpayers.

Management's role is performed by governments - which is often heavily lobbied by labor. For example, five of the top 10 lobbying clients seeking to influence decisions in Albany in 2006 were unions, including two teachers unions that spent a total of $1.7 million and two public worker unions that spent $1.3 million in that election year. The Civil Service Employees Association and its locals also gave nearly $100,000 to local and state political campaigns that year, while New York State United Teachers gave $245,000, according to state records.

This week, the Taylor Law is getting a rare public analysis in Albany. Economists, labor leaders and political scientists will consider whether a law that was prompted by crippling garbage, transit and teacher strikes from Buffalo to New York City after World War II and into the 1960s should be changed for the 21st century.

"We look it as being a very fine example of public policy and crafted at a time of tremendous upheaval in labor and in society in general," said Stephen Madarasz, spokesman for the CSEA. The CSEA is the largest state employee union in New York and also represents local government and school workers.

New Yorkers needed such a law after the public services workers resorted to their only formidable recourse at the time and called strikes, which debilitated New York City four decades ago. Public workers sought collective bargaining rights to negotiate the fair pay, job protection and benefits their private sector colleagues got. The law created penalties for public unions and their members for strikes, including possible jail time, fines and a penalty of losing two days' pay for every day spent on strike. It was used against New York City transit workers and their union leaders following a 2005 strike around Christmas.

Madarasz said many of the critics of the Taylor Law see that public employees now have more protections and rights than private sector workers who increasingly face layoffs, outsourcing of labor and raids on pension funds.

"If the private sector is being reckless in how they deal with employees, why should the public sector follow suit?" Madarasz said.

"The Taylor Law in many ways is a relic of a bygone time," countered E.J. McMahon, director of the Empire Center for New York State Policy. The center is part of the conservative Manhattan Institute and is sponsoring Tuesday's symposium at the Albany Institute of History and Art.

McMahon said although the Taylor Law was promoted as a way to end strikes, public employee strikes flourished after the law was passed through the 1970s, especially by teachers' unions.

"The more rights they received, the more strikes there were ... and they worked," McMahon said.

Although government officials first bargain with unions, they have to balance labor peace and perhaps their own political support against driving a hard deal, McMahon said. Politicians often avoid the tough spot by allowing the talks to go to arbitrator.

"The word missing in all of this is `taxpayer,'" he said. "It seems like we're working for them."

McMahon said before the Taylor Law, New York's tax burden was 9 percent above the national average. Now, it's 35 percent above the national average and New Yorkers pay the highest local and state taxes in the country. Although many factors were in play during that time, McMahon said the rising cost of public worker contracts was a driving force behind the tax increases.

McMahon and Madarasz said they know many New Yorkers are irked by the perks.

For example, while private sector employees worry about whether their pension will be around when they retire, public pensions are guaranteed by the state constitution.

Teachers, except for the most senior, get automatic "step" raises each year that can be 4 percent bumps for longevity or for achieving academic and professional requirements. McMahon notes that's not mentioned on union lawn signs that say teachers are working without a contract, or when school boards approve contract raises. Merit raises are also rare in public contracts.

"Most would agree a good teacher is worth their weight in gold, but collective bargaining means every teacher is paid their worth in gold," McMahon said.

"You can't just look at it like the government always has the solution of raising taxes," said former Gov. George Pataki, who like Democratic Gov. Eliot Spitzer has vetoed numerous bills that would have sweetened pensions and strengthened public unions. "If you do, you will destroy the private economy that allows you to provide the public services."

The Public Policy Center hopes the symposium will recommend changes in the Taylor that the center feels will put taxpayers into the bargaining equation.

"It seems highly unlikely," said Maurice Carroll of the Quinnipiac University poll and a longtime New York political reporter. "Unions up here, unlike most places, even have Republicans."


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