Furloughs? David Paterson Backs Himself Into a Bad Position, Again


Maybe it’s just David Paterson fatigue.

The media is so tired of kicking the governor around that we’re letting him posture as a bulwark against fiscal madness when he’s one of its causes. It took a federal judge a minute or two to figure out that Paterson’s furlough plan was an illegal violation of a collective bargaining agreement, yet Paterson is still depicted as the only man in Albany willing to bite the bullet.

Presumably, this grand stunt originated with the same lawyers that prepared and accompanied him on his potentially perjurious trip to the ethics commission in the Yankee ticket probe. U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence Kahn couldn’t have said it more plainly in his decision this week, noting that the state “agreed” to contracts with state unions and has nevertheless enacted “unpaid furloughs, a wage freeze and a benefit freeze on certain groups of state employees in contravention of a number of such contracts.”

The only way the state can alter a binding deal is to negotiate a new one, and get the unions to agree to furloughs or a wage freeze. And the only way to get them to agree to that is to threaten them with worse — namely, the layoffs of thousands of their members. That’s what happened in the early 90s, when the Dinkins administration, suffering through a recession, convinced DC 37 to accept furloughs.

But David Paterson can’t threaten layoffs with any credibility because he executed a deal with the unions last June guaranteeing job security in exchange for their support of a new pension tier. It was as foolish, and self-serving, a deal as a governor has ever entered into with state labor. Paterson was positioning himself to run in the 2010 election and he was widely praised for gaining pension concessions from the unions.

No one paid much attention then to what he gave up to get those concessions.

Listen to Jim Hanley, who’s been the city’s labor commissioner under Ed Koch, David Dinkins, Rudy Giuliani and now Mike Bloomberg: “We don’t have any job security provisions” in any city agreement with the unions, says Hanley, who declined to discuss the one Paterson signed with the state unions.

When Paterson agreed to a job security provision as part of a binding collective bargaining deal, he forfeited any leverage he might have had to get the unions to defer their pending 4 percent wage hikes or take furloughs. Without the real threat of layoffs, all Paterson has left to force union concessions are screaming editorials. How could a union leader agree to abrogate contractual gains unless he could go to his members and say he had to do it to protect the jobs of thousands?

During the fiscal crisis in the 1970s, the big city unions agreed to defer 2, 4 and 6 percent wage increases. But that was only after the city laid off ten thousand city workers on a single day, a threat that Paterson can’t make with any credibility.

Stephen Madaraz, a spokesman for the biggest state union, the Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA), tells the Voice that the Paterson administration “tried to lay off a few people in Queens a few months ago and we took them to court over it and they ended up settling it by not laying people off.”

“When you hear the lieutenant governor saying ‘oh well, now we’re going to have to look at layoffs,’ they have a signed agreement with us that says they can’t do layoffs and a court has upheld it in recent months,” says Madaraz. “We had actually obtained a temporary restraining order against the layoffs” in Queens. Ironically, it was the Paterson administration, says Madaraz, that came to the union “demanding concessions” over pensions, resulting in the no-layoff agreement.

That was when Candidate Paterson thought he needed to show long term progress on the state’s pension costs.

As a result, Paterson has now boxed himself in and can’t expect any serious union givebacks to close the state’s $9 billion gap. “We’re not about to do unilateral concessions,” says Madarez, and all union leaders talk about is cutting consultant contracts and overtime, cost issues that have nothing to do with union contracts.