NY Public Workers To Vote On Austere New Contract

New York state's second-largest public employee union must approve an austere new contract, or face the possibility of 3,500 layoffs. The union rank and file already rejected a nearly identical deal once. But Gov. Andrew Cuomo insists the state can't afford further concessions.

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It's been a tough year for public employee unions across the country. That's true, even, in traditionally labor-friendly states like New York. While the state's workforce has shrunk through attrition, there have been no mass layoffs yet.

As NPR's Joel Rose reports, that may soon change.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Imagine you had to choose between taking a pay cut or watching dozens of your colleagues lose their jobs. That's basically the choice facing thousands of public sector workers in New York State.

RICHARD DILLARD: It's a lousy country. However, people are going to save their jobs for now.

ROSE: Richard Dillard is a Medicaid investigator who's worked for the state for more than 30 years, but he may not for much longer. Dillard is one of nearly 3,500 members of the Public Employees Federation who stand to lose their jobs unless the union votes to accept an austere new contract.

DILLARD: You can make concessions and fight - hopefully, fight to get them back. But once people lose their jobs, it's very hard. It's very difficult to get that back. There are people out there who have far worse situations than mine. Their lives would be devastated if they lost their job. So therefore, this is what I'm trying to convey to the people that I speak to.

ROSE: Dillard hopes to persuade his fellow union members to accept a contract that's nearly identical to one they rejected just over a month ago. The state's biggest public sector union signed on for a three-year wage freeze and other concessions over the summer. But members of the Public Employees Federation, which represents about 56,000 engineers, doctors and other professionals, did not. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo agreed to suspend the layoffs while union members vote again.

GOVERNOR ANDREW CUOMO: As I said from the beginning, we needed to achieve the financial savings that we needed, the revenue savings, but on a human level, the hardship of 3,500 layoffs was something we were going to do everything possible to avoid. So it's now up to them, and when I say it's up to them, it's up to them.

ROSE: Cuomo declined to make any major changes to the contract. Still, union officials have fanned out across the state, holding meetings and trying to convince the rank and file to hold their noses and vote yes. Here's president Ken Brynien in a video message on the union's website.

KEN BRYNIEN: And, yes, the new agreement saves the jobs of 3,496 of our co-workers, and that's why I'm encouraging our members to vote yes.

ROSE: But if you judge instead by the spirited debate and the comments on the union's Facebook page, there's a real chance the second vote will end like the first one.

DR. ANDREW COATES: We're not voting on layoffs. We're voting on a contract. And the contract is a terrible concession contract.

ROSE: Andrew Coates is a psychiatrist at the state mental hospital in Albany. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: While Coates is a doctor who works at the state psychiatric hospital, he is not a psychiatrist.] He's part of a group that's urging union members to vote no on the deal, in part, because it offers little protection from future layoffs.

COATES: And it's layoffs now or layoffs later. And the question for our union is what puts us in the strongest position to stand up. That thinking is what has convinced me to vote against this contract.

ROSE: What everyone in the union seems to agree on is that Governor Cuomo should look elsewhere to balance New York's books, including extending the so-called millionaires tax that's set to expire at the end of the year. But E.J. McMahon at the Manhattan Institute, which advocates for less government spending, says Cuomo's position isn't as harsh as the unions are making it out to be.

E.J. MCMAHON: Compared to some other states, he is charting a moderate course. If you look in other states, for instance, California and several other states, there were some fairly significant actions taken to reduce payroll costs, including mass layoffs and payless furloughs. That was not the case in New York state.

ROSE: Voting on the Public Employees Federation contract ends tomorrow morning. If the union votes to reject the deal a second time, up to 3,500 layoffs could be announced immediately unless Governor Cuomo decides to grant another reprieve. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.

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Correction Nov. 3, 2011

We mistakenly identified Dr. Andrew Coates as a psychiatrist. While Coates is a doctor who works at the state psychiatric hospital, he is not a psychiatrist.

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