Labor Force: Unions focusing on IDAs, farmworkers, Scaffold Law

Labor Force: Unions focusing on IDAs, farmworkers, Scaffold Law

Labor Force: Unions focusing on IDAs, farmworkers, Scaffold Law
May 30, 2014

Fiscal conservatives and budget watchdogs often bemoan the “goodies” doled out to organized labor in the form of legislation that skates through at the end of the legislative session in Albany. But what happens when some of the biggest labor priorities have already been taken care of or do not have a prayer of passing? 

This being an election year meant there was a high likelihood that state legislators—even Gov. Andrew Cuomo, despite his lukewarm relationship with labor—would be more amenable to labor priorities in order to shore up support as they prepare for their re-election campaigns this summer. 

The election year corollary was partially fulfilled this year, mostly in the state budget. The state AFL-CIO and public sector unions such as the Public Employees Federation made a strong push for the inclusion of safe patient handling, which would require healthcare facilities throughout the state to form committees that would design specific programs to improve how patients are lifted or repositioned. 

Still, the flip side to election year politics is that controversial reforms are often tabled until the dust settles. Economic development reform initiatives targeted by organized labor, such as revamping Industrial Development Agencies (IDAs) to hold them more accountable for the jobs they claim to create, were left out of the budget, and the IDA bill does not appear likely to pass by the end of the legislative session. AFL-CIO President Mario Cilento compared IDA reform to the fight to revamp the state’s unemployment insurance and workers’ compensation systems in last year’s budget, and indicated that it will probably take more lobbying. 

“Last year it was unemployment insurance; that takes time to get done,” Cilento said. “I would put IDA reform on that level. My feeling is that at some point it will get done, but all the stars have to align.” 

Insiders familiar with labor-related legislation on the state level say that with the major priorities off the table for now, the rest of the session will be spent blocking bills that labor unions and some legislators oppose. 

Among these bills is a reauthorization of design-build legislation, which allows specified agencies to award a single contract to a private sector team covering the design and construction phases of a given project. Design-build legislation was authorized for three years in 2011, but reauthorization is opposed by many public sector unions unless there are guaranteed project labor agreements ensuring union construction. Unions also argue that private contractors should not design buildings they are also responsible for inspecting. 

Assembly Democrats also oppose any attempt to amend the Scaffold Law, a divisive measure that holds contractors liable for injuries that occur on the job as a result of falling objects. Despite the best efforts of Republicans in the Legislature— who say that the law raises construction insurance rates—to amend the law, consistent opposition from labor unions has proven too strong to overcome. 

Another aspect to the end-of-session scramble is the haste with which “uniform” unions—police, fire, sanitation—rush to get favorable legislation passed. Assemblyman Peter Abbate, who chairs the Committee on Governmental Employees, said that the last three days of the session are the busiest for those unions—and this year will likely be no different, as the police and fire unions in New York City are working together on a bill to protect the disability pensions of individuals injured on the job. 

“Sometimes, unfortunately, people take advantage of disability pensions … but you have to make sure that it’s done properly so people who are really injured on the job don’t suffer,” Abbate said. 

Abbate added that his committee is largely in a holding pattern as it awaits home rule messages from various localities and municipalities around the state. In New York, local governments are granted the authority to enact local laws relating to various subjects, and any that fall under Abbate’s purview of public sector workers have to pass his committee before being voted on by the Legislature. 

One piece of legislation that has struggled to make it across the finish line is the Farm Workers’ Bill of Rights, which would grant farmworkers collective bargaining rights, mandate a day off per week and grant time-and-a-half pay for overtime, among other provisions. The bill passed the Assembly last year before dying in the Senate, but Senate sources say that the legislation might have new life as the New York Farm Bureau, which opposed the bill because of its belief that labor laws for manufacturing workers should not apply to agriculture, has indicated that it may be open to renewing talks. 

Placeholder blue outline avatar
Nick Powell