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Time for state unions to take one for the team

April 2, 2010
Adirondack Daily Enterprise

We were working on an editorial on New York's public employee unions Thursday when we got the statement from Gov. David Paterson that accompanies this article. He says almost everything we wanted to say, but more eloquently.

These words show that Gov. Paterson thinks, as do we, that public employee unions' ironclad self-interest is one of New York's core problems.

Contrast it with the us-against-the-state messages unions like the Public Employees Federation are sending out. The latest cover of PEF's magazine, The Communicator, shows a fist with a gold "PEF" ring punching the reader, as if through the paper. The headline says "Budget Fightback 2010." Look how far union imagery has come: What used to be an underdog worker sticking it to The Man is now a gold-ringed fat cat ready to "fight back" against the taxpayers who gave him his job.

Article Photos

Gov. David Paterson
(Photo courtesy of the governor's office)

Then there's the statement PEF President Kenneth Brynien issued Wednesday, insisting his union will not reopen its contract to sacrifice its raises for a year, despite a looming $9.2 billion deficit.

It's time for the unions, which have had a hand on this state's steering wheel for so long, to give an accounting of where they've driven us. They also must account for their steering methods, which in large part involve corrupt "pay to play" - making heavy donations to politicians' campaigns to buy their votes.

Compared with other states, New York is all about the public employee. We even use people rather than machines to hand out Thruway tickets. With such a huge deficit crisis, it only makes sense that there must be some payroll cuts, and if raises are sacred, that may leave layoffs as the only option. That's sad for those who may lose their jobs, knowing their fellow union members refused to give an inch to save them.

Fact Box

Statement from Gov. David Paterson


"In the last two years, more than 300,000 New Yorkers have lost their jobs. Nearly 9 percent of the workers in our state are unemployed. And thousands of New Yorkers have had to accept wage freezes, salary cuts, furloughs and other concessions in order to simply keep their jobs. Others have lost their pensions, must pay higher health insurance premiums or have lost their coverage altogether.

"We are in the midst of extraordinary fiscal and economic crisis. It is a crisis that will require shared sacrifice from every individual and organization that relies upon state funding.

"That is why I am calling on the leaders of New York's public employee unions to agree to forgo the 4 percent raises scheduled to go into effect today for their membership. This across-the-board salary increase, which is on top of a 9 percent raise provided over the last three years, is simply not affordable to taxpayers at a time when the state is facing an over $9 billion deficit.

"In the past, the leaders of New York's public employee unions have said that refusing to forgo a 4 percent raise simply represents their effort to uphold the 'principle' of not renegotiating past contracts - even if the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression occurs within the contract period. To that argument, I would respectfully note that there is a higher principle. Public employees are, above all else, public servants. Our first responsibility is to the taxpayers. I do not believe that, at a time when more than 300,000 of the hard-working New Yorkers who pay our salaries are out of a job, it is fair to continue the status quo with one segment of the workforce.

"Even within our own state government, other public employees are already making these same sacrifices. For the second consecutive year, non-union employees will not receive their scheduled raises. I know this has been difficult for many of them, but I also know that New York's taxpayers appreciate their sacrifice during a time of unprecedented fiscal crisis. And private-sector unions have suffered as well, with some facing staggering unemployment rates as they have borne the brunt of an economic crisis that has stymied new development in New York.

"All public employees are a critical part of our state government. They deliver essential public services, and for that, they deserve our respect. But New York remains mired in a fiscal crisis of nearly unprecedented magnitude that will require real sacrifices. In agreeing to forgo these scheduled 4 percent salary increases, the leaders of New York's public employee unions have a real and concrete opportunity to demonstrate they understand the dire nature of this fiscal and economic crisis, and that they are willing to become a serious partner in addressing it."

"PEF will also hold the governor to his promise of no layoffs through his current term in office that ends December 31, 2010," Brynien said. Why would the governor make such a promise, we'd like to know, and why would he keep it, since he's not running for re-election, and since the state is in such desperate straits? It's generally acknowledged that someone has to make the tough cuts, but no elected official will take the political risk. Maybe someone with no political future, like Paterson, is just the man to answer the demand.

PEF continues to insist, incredibly, that more, not fewer, state employees is the solution to our budget crisis.

"PEF has repeatedly demonstrated the state can meet the governor's target for savings replacing high-cost consultants with lower-cost state employees," Brynien said. "Until the state moves decisively to slash the use of costly consultants, PEF will not accept any demand for give-backs."

The state may spend too much on consultants, but it also spends too much on its employees - unsustainably so. Both must change, and quickly, or we'll all slide deeper into the disgusting fiscal pit we're in. As Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli stated Thursday, "This must be a transformative year for New York."

Meanwhile, these unions and the politicians who serve them have been taking the opposite path, radically delving further into the sludge pit. Senate Democrats have brazenly offered to give union lobbyists insider access for every $50,000 campaign gift (the Republicans did it, too, when they had the majority, but the price tag has inflated), and a new Assembly bill would extend tenure-like job protection for all public employees - state, town, county, school, whatever - preventing incompetent or unnecessary ones from being fired.

It's time, instead, for New York's public servants to serve the public. State workers have been treated well, and now they must take one for the team - and not act like martyrs for doing so. Things are tough all over.



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