ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — The state Legislature on Monday authorized unprecedented furloughs to deal with the state's fiscal crisis because its powerful public worker unions have rejected every request for contract concessions since last fall.
Democratic Gov. David Paterson forced a vote on an emergency spending bill that includes the one-day-a-week furloughs for about 100,000 state workers, meant to save $30 million a week beginning May 17. Even though the Senate and Assembly majorities oppose furloughs and call the action illegal, they voted for them because the furloughs couldn't be separated from the spending bill. Rejecting that measure would have shut down state government.
For state workers making an average salary of $64,164 a year, a furlough would cost about $267 a week, which they wouldn't get back under Paterson's plan. The unions had previously rejected a request to temporarily delay their annual 4 percent raise, worth about $53 a week for the average worker.
"Furloughs are the least preferable option, but they have made it necessary," said E.J. McMahon, an analyst for the fiscally conservative Empire Center for New York State Policy.
The unions have so far refused requests by the Paterson administration for lag pay and for suspending their raises for a year to — as Paterson puts it — share in the sacrifice of all New Yorkers in the recession. A lawsuit already prepared was expected to be filed Tuesday to block furloughs.
The Civil Service Employees Association was seeking a restraining order with the federal court in Albany, according to a statement released by the union late Monday. The New York State Public Employees Federation, which represents 58,000 professional, technical and scientific employees, also said it would file for a temporary restraining order.
"It's not going to be enacted," said Assembly Finance Committee Chairman Herman "Denny" Farrell, a New York City Democrat. "A contract is a contract."
Assemblyman Charles Lavine, a Nassau County Democrat, called the essentially 20-percent pay cuts for state workers "illegal, illogical, immoral and it's repugnant."
Union leaders say members have already made the same sacrifices as other New Yorkers, including paying the record high tax increases in last year's budget. They also offered ideas they say would save millions of dollars, first among them firing state consultants and replacing them with union workers.
Paterson had targeted $250 million in savings from the unions to address the deficit, but each of those ideas has been rejected. He also agreed to avoid layoffs this year, while state unemployment is at 8.6 percent, but said he may reconsider that.
"They have made no sacrifice at all," McMahon said of the nearly 300,000-worker force, 23,000 of whom make more than $100,000 a year.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, said he believes the unions should provide $250 million in concessions, but that the courts would likely overturn the forced furloughs.
Labor leaders held a rally Monday outside the Capitol. About 2,000 union members on their lunch hour and personal time, some driven from home on union-leased buses, chanted in front of TV cameras outside. The rally was one in a series held across the state Monday.
"We have a contract!" shouted Public Employees Federation President Kenneth Brynien to members surrounding a 10-foot inflated gray rat. "We call this a mugging. This is not negotiation. We call this extortion!"
"This is an incredibly stupid idea!" Hughes shouted to cheers.
The unions also are turning the tables on the Legislature. The New York State AFL-CIO on Monday began targeting individual Democratic senators it says betrayed working people.
Union members are calling voters and giving them fliers. Every seat in the Legislature is up for election this fall, and incumbent lawmakers have traditionally depended on the influence and money of unions to boost their campaigns.
The labor organization cites several actions in which the Legislature refused to take the unions' position.
Legislators said doing so would have shut down government.
"The costs of inaction are simply too high," said Senate Majority Conference Leader John L. Sampson, a Brooklyn Democrat
Republicans in the Senate voted against the bill with emergency spending and furloughs, saying the Democrats who lead legislative and executive branches have devolved into no negotiations for the budget that was 40 days late. The Democratic majority mustered just enough votes — all 32 — needed to pass the emergency spending bill with the furlough element.
A state government shutdown would likely result in massive layoffs, a temporary halt to state services including health care for the poor, construction projects, unemployment benefits and likely disruption to local governments and schools that depend on state resources.
Assemblyman John McEneny, an Albany Democrat who represents the most state workers, said no legislator wants furloughs, but shutting down government would stop unemployment checks for 600,000 New Yorkers and their families and hurt 111,000 people in nursing homes. He said only the governor wants furloughs.
"Innocent people pay the price of brinksmanship," McEneny said. The measure passed 82-56 in the Assembly, with most Republicans opposed.