Andrew Cuomo

Mixed results for organized labor in state budget

After the 175.5 billion state budget passed, union leaders say they will continue to push for their legislative priorities in the coming weeks.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo meets with construction workers during the official opening of the Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge in 2018.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo meets with construction workers during the official opening of the Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge in 2018. Mark Lennihan/AP/Shutterstock

Like a dozen or so Democratic lawmakers, organized labor found lots to love and hate in the $175.5 billion state budget.

Public sector employees received significant new collective bargaining protections, but an effort to increase union wages on publicly supported construction projects did not make it into the budget deal.

Additionally, some unions were unhappy with other provisions that made the cut: Firefighters unions are concerned about congestion pricing, teachers unions worry that the permanent 2 percent property tax cap will limit education funding and a range of complaints have been lodged against a plan for publicly financed political campaigns.

And despite widespread support for a slate of union-friendly legislation that will be on the table in the second half of the session, fault lines remain on issues like marijuana legalization and single-payer health care, which have both drawn criticism from organized labor.

While union leaders applauded the new protections for public sector employees, there was a shared sense among some labor leaders – some of whom declined to comment on the budget – that some of their priorities fell by the wayside during budget negotiations as Democrats pursued other proposals. “They tried to catch up on things they have not been able to get done because of a Republican Senate,” said Gerard Fitzgerald, president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association of Greater New York Local 94. “They’re really going nuts.” Congestion pricing was one issue that concerned the firefighters union, especially if they are not able to secure a exemption for members who enter the congestion zone in Manhattan in their private vehicles for unexpected shifts, he said.

The passage of a proposal to establish a publicly funded campaign system could cost up to $100 million annually, which also did not sit well with some union officials. “How can we even think about that when we have so many needs?” said Fran Turner, legislative director at the Civil Services Employees Association Local 1000, which represents state workers. “When it comes to priorities, public financing is not one of them – and it shouldn’t be.”

The passage of a permanent local property tax cap was also a big loss for New York State United Teachers, which had vehemently opposed the proposal. A spokesman declined to comment on the union’s reaction to the budget.

While some progressive legislation included in the budget did not go over well, union leaders said that the budget contained some big wins for public sector unions. New rules will prevent state government from disclosing the personal information of public employees, which could be used to undermine union membership. This had been a big concern for public sector unions following the 2018 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Janus v. AFSCME Council 31, which found that requiring nonunion workers to pay union dues was unconstitutional. According to Turner, after the court decision, union members faced a deluge of emails, phone calls, Facebook ads and even people showing up at their doors telling them how they could quit their unions.

By codifying the provisions of an executive order issued by Cuomo last year, unions members are now sheltered from such union-busting outreach. Unions also secured in the budget the right to meet with new employees while another provision prevents nonmembers from suing unions for the dues they paid prior to last year. “Moving forward, I think we are in very good shape,” Turner said of collective bargaining rights for public employees in New York. “There is not much else that needs to be done that hasn’t been done.”

But a proposal to pass a public works bill that would expand the use of the prevailing wage did not make it into the budget. A bipartisan bill aims to expand the scope of public projects that would be have to pay union members and other workers a higher wage than currently required. Some critics have questioned whether this would be a good policy in practice, especially considering how it could significantly raise the costs of public projects.

There are also issues to be worked out in terms of how the bill would affect affordable housing construction and women and minority contractors, according to Assemblyman Marcos Crespo, who chairs the Labor Committee. “There was significant movement and it appeared to be coming together,” Crespo said. “But like a lot of things, it did not come together.” Cuomo has said the public works bill remains a priority this year and state Sen. Jessica Ramos, who chairs the Labor Committee in the upper house, said she is pushing to get the bill though this year.

But that is not all that unions want done this year. Unions are looking to get several issues addressed through the legislative committees overseeing the civil service system. The firefighters and police unions want better pension benefits. Park rangers have collective bargaining concerns of their own, and employees at state universities and public teaching hospitals say they are not done pushing for tuition assistance programs and other funding programs. At the same time, police unions are continuing to oppose recreational marijuana legalization.

Other unions want to block single-payer health care. Anthony Wells, president of Social Service Employees Union Local 371, said that a renewed push for single-payer health care in New York is concerning. Some unions – though certainly not all of them – have opposed single-payer because they do not want to sacrifice medical benefits they have secured through collective bargaining at the expense of wages. “It is going to cause some problems,” Wells said of the New York Health Act. “It’s not going to accomplish what they are seeking to do.”

What the budget process did make clear is while organized labor may have challenges nationwide, it remains a formidable force in New York politics. At a March 27 rally inside the state Capitol, the hold that organized labor has on Democrats and Republicans alike was on full display. Republican Assemblymen Edward Ra and Michael LiPetri stood alongside Ramos, a Democrat, as dozens of construction workers chanted “count me in” as part of a final effort to get the public works bill in the budget. While there was already a sense that the effort would fall short, Michael Hellstrom, a union leader from the Mason Tenders District Council of Greater New York and Long Island, made sure to note that organized labor was keeping track of which lawmakers supported, and opposed, their legislative priorities. “I’ll remember who stood with me,” he told the crowd. “And who stood against me.”