Fruits Of Labor

Fruits Of Labor

April 23, 2014

Most political pundits and observers mark the end of the legislative session on their calendars, so they can take stock of all the favors doled out that year to satisfy special interests, what deals were cut and which bills wound up on the cutting room floor. This being an election year for both the governor and all of the members of the state Legislature, one particular interest group may walk away from Albany on June 19, the last scheduled day of session, more satisfied than others: organized labor. 

The Democratic Assembly has long served as a champion of labor’s priorities, passing generally friendly legislation that often fails to gain traction in the Senate, where there is more party parity. Meanwhile Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, and Senate Co-Leaders Dean Skelos and Jeff Klein—the “four men in the room” hammering out the finer points of the state budget—can decide, depending on the politics of the moment and, to a certain extent, favors owed, whether to placate labor unions by including carve-outs and desired initiatives or legislation. 

This particular year, with the governor’s talk of a budget surplus looming over negotiations, experts believe such rhetoric may have made it especially difficult to say no to unions’ priorities. 

“It’s very difficult in an election year to be tough on organized labor,” said Elizabeth Lynam, vice president and director of state studies for the Citizens Budget Commission. “People are talking about a surplus and spending a surplus, and that tends to kind of light up people’s eyes: ‘Now we’re gonna spend again, we’re gonna go forward in spending mode.’ It’s hard while you’re doing that to then on the other hand be tough on organized labor in New York State.” 

On the face of this year’s budget, the economic development agenda the state AFL-CIO (representing 3,000 public and private sector unions and over 2.5 million members) pushed at the outset of the session has not fared well, at least not yet. State AFL-CIO President Mario Cilento told City & State in September that assigning accountability to New York’s industrial development agencies, which attempt to attract and retain businesses by providing financial incentives to private entities, was a top priority of the federation. Cilento said that most IDAs do not create the number of jobs they claim and that there should be “a projected job creation number commensurate with the amount of money we’re giving out.” 

But in a year in which Cuomo is campaigning on cutting taxes and stimulating the flagging upstate economy, IDA reform was always going to be a heavy lift, as the agencies are a vehicle for growth in the state, warts and all. On the flip side, Cilento and organized labor did win a hard-fought victory on another piece of legislation that had fallen short for a number of years: safe patient handling, which would require healthcare facilities throughout the state to form committees that would design specific programs to make improvements in this area. Though the legislation had failed to pass for the better part of a decade, Cilento does not necessarily believe the Legislature and governor being up for re-election had much to do with getting it passed now. 

“We’ve been working on [safe patient handling] for somewhere between 8 and 10 years—there were four election cycles, at least, in that time period,” Cilento said. “It doesn’t hurt to have a big issue in an election year, but I think it was just a confluence of events. It was the right time; we had made the case for many years at this point. We had six or seven different affiliates who we had coordinated this through over the years, coming up with what we are all agreeable to on this side of it, and certainly on the employer side of it. Sometimes it just takes a while.” 

Even with the victory, labor had to make some concessions in the final agreement on safe patient handling, removing provisions that directed the statewide policy to include recommendations for lift equipment and ratios of equipment per staff. A safe staffing companion initiative that would establish a nurse-to-patient ratio in hospitals and nursing homes was left out of the budget. Labor insiders say the safe staffing component was a large reason why safe patient handling failed to pass last year, despite momentum for it to do so, because the legislation would increase expenses for hospitals and nursing homes by necessitating them to hire more staff. 

“[Safe patient handling] would have passed last year; then the nurses started bringing up safe staffing or staffing ratios, so they want to put in nurses per patient in hospitals and nursing homes. The industry really doesn’t want to do that,” said a source familiar with the safe patient handling negotiations. “When they brought that up last year, it sort of killed the safe patient handling bill. Both houses said, ‘Wait a minute, we want credit for doing safe patient handling, and if you’re just going to be making noise next year for the other bill, let’s do this in an election year so we can get credit for it.’ ” 

Public Employees Federation President Susan Kent, who represents the second largest public sector membership in the state, pointed to the fact that Cuomo chose not to reauthorize the “design-build” procurement process as “very big for us.” The governor also left out a provision to include more wide-ranging authorization for Public Private Partnerships (P3s). Labor unions have consistently fought to ensure that “design-build” and P3 projects include union construction— which is not always the case—and also ensure safety protections, as the same private entities responsible for construction are also responsible for inspections. 

“You cannot have private contractors designing building and also be responsible for inspecting,” Kent said. “It was one of the things that seemed to be new to the administration as well as the Legislature—that because design-build [contractors were] silent on inspections, they didn’t believe that inspections were included [in the process].” 

Still, there are those who believe that election years are not unique in being especially rife with legislative or budget concessions to labor. E.J. McMahon, president of the conservative-leaning Empire Center for New York State Policy, said that labor unions “do so well [legislatively], it’s hard to almost tell the difference,” between election and nonelection years. McMahon added that there is still ample time for the Legislature to curry even more favor with labor. 

“The budget’s not normally [labor’s] big thing,” McMahon said. “In an election year, you really have to watch the end of session for the union goodies.”

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Nick Powell