Governor Paterson is playing hardball, or at least fast-pitch softball, with the civil service unions. He wants them to skip a pay increase and give back some on benefits, or else, he says, he may have to fire 8,900 of them to close his growing budget gap. That’s about four percent of the government’s workforce; Paterson’s budget director says the cuts would save $481 million over two years. Union officials respond as you would expect: “There is absolutely no need to do layoffs,” says the president of the Public Employees Federation. Legislators respond cautiously: “This is an unfortunate turn of events,” says assembly speaker Sheldon Silver. “I would hope that the Governor and the public employee unions can come together and avoid this painful step.” State senate majority leader Malcolm Smith calls on the unions “to step up and renegotiate a fair agreement that is consistent with the principle of shared sacrifice.” The unions have heretofore been belligerent on the issue; we’ll see who blinks first.