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Unions go against popular current

October 7, 2011
Editorial by the Adirondack Daily Enterprise: Publisher Catherine Moore, Managing Editor Peter Crowley

Whether you're a top boss or an entry-level worker, you're a meaningful part of your company, government agency or nonprofit group. When that group's coffers swell with money, some of that largesse should come to you, and when those funds are drained, you should have to share in the sacrifice. That's not always how it works, but overall, it's fair.

That's why it's probably a bad gamble these days for labor unions in shrinking sectors to buck calls for austerity.

A majority of Public Employees Federation members, who mostly fill college-educated positions in the state government, voted on Sept. 26 to reject a contract hammered out by their leaders and Gov. Andrew Cuomo. They did it knowing it meant 3,500 of their members would lose their jobs; the governor had made that clear and couldn't really go back on it. Another big state employee union, the Civil Service Employees Association, recently accepted a similar deal.

It's definitely not the kind of contract state employees are used to getting: no raises in the first three of its five years, then a $1,000 signing bonus in the third year and 2 percent pay raises in the last two years, plus higher health care payments and unpaid furloughs. But that's the kind of thing many private-sector employees have had to swallow, especially in challenged industries - and there's no doubt that government is a challenged industry, shedding more jobs than any other recently.

Most New Yorkers - and even the Legislature, now - affirm that the state has to tighten up and stop reckless deficit spending. This union contract was a way to meet budget benchmarks without short-staffing state agencies. It wasn't easy, but it was the result of democratic action. Yes, a millionaire's tax could have made this tough choice unnecessary, but that isn't what the people's representatives decided to do.

These PEF layoffs will hurt New Yorkers in general; they cut into the meat of public services, not just the fat. Now that the pink slips have been issued, and if a new deal isn't reached before they take effect Oct. 19, the North Country, like the rest of the state, will see less oversight for the mentally disabled residents of Sunmount, a shortage of state support for town assessors and fewer staff for prisons and transportation projects.

We respect PEF members for doing what they felt they had to do, but they can't expect much sympathy from New Yorkers. Some PEF members have grumbled that the governor's approach was heavy handed, but he did what most New Yorkers wanted him to do. Public opinion is on his side by pretty much every indicator, from polls to newspaper commentary.

Switching to the private sector, unionized Verizon workers are still fighting their companies for a contract they consider fair. Their new "iWon't" campaign asks people to not upgrade to the latest iPhone, released this week, until a contract is agreed upon. They also say their companies duck federal corporate taxes on their billions in profits and that the top five executives each rake in hundreds of millions a year while cutting benefits for 45,000 union workers.

The union is quieter about a few other things: Almost all its members work in Verizon's land-line division - a service customers are rapidly hanging up on. These workers pay nothing toward their monthly health care premiums, and the company wants them to pay at least $1,200 a year - not much. Verizon's 135,000 non-union employees already contribute to their premiums.

Yes, too many top executives of American corporations milk their staff and customers to enrich themselves. Yes, in general, we have more feeling for workers than multi-millionaires. But really, most Americans will not see this as a case of oppression. We doubt a groundswell of customers will boycott the new iPhone out of sympathy for these workers.

It comes down to this: One can't expect to only add to one's comfort level all the time. Subtraction happens, too.



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