Pension Reform Causes Unions to See Red

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An overnight session in the state legislature where pension reform and other items were approved has left public worker unions, and even some lawmakers, fuming. Meanwhile Governor Andrew Cuomo says it had to be done that way.

The pension reform bill was first released at 3 a.m. Thursday morning. It was on the members desk at 5 a.m., and passed into law shortly before 7:30.

Unions were furious, using a pre-planned rally to express their anger, saying the new benefit tier will reduce pensions by as much 40 percent for future state workers. Mary Sullivan, a vice president with the Civil Service Employees Association, as recorded music blared “we’re not gonna take it.” 

Many union members accused lawmakers of selling them out in order to win agreement from Governor Cuomo on a favorable redistricting plan, which was also passed in the middle of the night.

Public union members may be small in numbers compared to the private workforce in New York,  but they’ve offered critical support for senators, assemblymembers and even governors seeking reelection by staffing  phone banks, door-to-door literature drops.

Ken Brynien, president of the Public Employees Federation, says he can’t tell his members what do to at election time, but he says right now they seem disinclined to do help any lawmaker who voted for the plan, and vows that they will “remember in November.”

While Assembly Democrats have traditionally been greater defenders of public worker unions, Senate Republicans have also had a close relationship with unions. Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos says the pension changes only impact future employees, present workers will not lose anything.

“By the state constitution, their benefits cannot be diminished,” Skelos said.

Governor Cuomo, who initially had sought a wider pension reform plan, with a 401(k)  option for all new workers, says he believes the public is on  his side on the issue.

“We’re in danger of bankrupting localities around the state,” said Cuomo, who added if there were no pension reform there would be “exorbitant” tax increases or mass lay offs.

The governor says the alternative would be for local governments to lay off workers as they struggle to meet pension costs. 

And Cuomo says the bill had to be introduced and passed quickly in the wee hours of the morning, because, he says, “dysfunctional” Albany would have kept on talking endlessly, and nothing would have been accomplished.

“The trick is at one point to stop the dialogue and force action,” Cuomo said.

The pension changes will offer a limited 401(k) type option, for non union workers earning more than $75,000 a year. The governor predicts that the option will be “exciting” for workers, and that the more employees, even union employees, understand it, the more they will be “pleased.”