Labor Laws: Unions See Mixed Results in 2013 Legislative Session

| City and State

Now that another legislative session is in the books in Albany, pundits, lawmakers and the media can evaluate which interest groups and organizations came out ahead and who was left wanting. The only consensus regarding the outcome of this session is that the legislative results for organized labor ran the gamut, from overwhelming success for certain unions and coalitions to a bitter disappointment for others—though with several major labor initiatives passing and little legislation going through with wide-ranging consequences for labor, it’s safe to say that labor unions fared pretty well this go-around.

Speaking with City & State in January, AFL-CIO President Mario Cilento outlined a long list of priorities that organized labor hoped to see realized. The AFL-CIO represents 2.5 million members in the state, and includes public and private sector unions, as well as smaller trade unions. Included in their agenda this year was a minimum wage hike, revamping the unemployment trust fund and passing legislation supporting farmworkers’ rights, among other priorities.

The political landscape of each session is amorphous, with certain initiatives taking precedence based on various factors, including which party controls the Legislature and which items Gov. Andrew Cuomo would most like to see passed. Priorities can sometimes change within a matter of weeks, and legislation that may have once languished, such as reforming the state’s gun control laws, will suddenly move to the forefront of the lawmakers’ consciousness due to extenuating circumstances, such as a national tragedy like the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Conn.

As a result, Cilento said, if a labor coalition or union is able to get one or two items on their agenda introduced as legislation or signed into law, it’s a small but significant victory.

“[Getting legislation passed is] really about party lines. The dynamics of the state Senate have changed in the last year, so there might be an opening to do something,” Cilento said at the start of the session. “You have to take a look at these things in a twoyear cycle, so sometimes you lay the groundwork for something that happens down the road, sometimes things move quicker than you think, sometimes things move a lot slower than you think, so that remains to be seen, but you always have to work at it, and you have to be ready.”

Leading up to and during every session, labor leaders grab the ear of state lawmakers that are proponents of their agenda or form coalitions with other unions to pressure the Legislature to enact—or, at the very least, introduce—their desired legislation for a vote. One of those legislators is state Sen. Diane Savino, the chair of the state Senate Labor Committee and a member of the Independent Democratic Conference, which runs the chamber jointly with the Republicans, headed by state Sen. Dean Skelos. Savino said that while she enjoys individual working relationships with many labor leaders, who will often try to solicit her support behind the scenes, she prefers a collaborative approach to mobilizing labor initiatives to ensure they will have a smooth passage rather than being forced through along party or upstate/downstate lines.

“Oftentimes what [labor leaders] will do is they’ll come in and find a sympathetic ear in the Senate or the Assembly, and they don’t listen to the other side, and they just push the bill through, and then what happens? It gets vetoed,” Savino said. “I don’t approach it that way; if there’s a way to find compromise, that’s the best way to do it.”

One labor priority to which Savino hopes to apply this collaborative method and resurrect in the next session is legislation enacting a farmworkers’ bill of rights. While the Assembly passed the bill this session, it never came up for a vote in the Senate, in part because the issue has been co-opted by downstate senators who see the cause as righting a “historic injustice,” but have crafted legislation without seeking the input of upstate senators who represent the farming industry.

“I’ve been very clear: I don’t think I should sponsor this bill. I’m a New York City Democrat; I couldn’t be any further south and still be in New York,” Savino said. “I do think that it would be better if [the legislation were sponsored by] an upstate member, but if it can’t be, that doesn’t mean we should walk away from this issue.”

Whether through compromise or good old-fashioned lobbying, certain labor unions scored big victories this session. The most significant bill that passed—perhaps now overlooked in the flurry of legislation that squeezed through at the end of the session— was an increase to the state’s minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 per hour over the next three years. Cilento and other liberal groups and unions originally had hoped that the minimum wage would be indexed to inflation so it would automatically increase in the future, but that provision was left on the cutting room floor. Regarding a so-called compromise, Senate Republicans scored hundreds of millions in tax breaks for businesses and families in exchange for passing the wage hike.

Another major item on Cuomo’s agenda this session was amending the state constitution to allow for expanded casino gambling upstate, an amendment that will require approval from voters in November. Cuomo touted the casino proposal’s job-creation potential—and thanks to labor peace agreements folded into the agreement, many of those jobs will go to union workers, a boon for private unions like the Hotel Trades Council, which advocated strongly for casinos throughout the session. A provision of the bill that would have treated all capital projects on casino sites as “public work” under state labor law—meaning that the casino facilities would have to submit to union-friendly project-labor agreements for renovations and construction work, which would have benefited unions like the Building and Construction Trades Council—was left out of the final legislation.

The Hotel Trades Council had been working behind the scenes since 2011 hoping to get the gaming legislation passed; sources familiar with the union’s thinking said it was extremely important for the labor peace agreements to be included in the final bill.

“[Casino expansion has] been our priority in Albany for a few years now. I testified about it at one of the first hearings before the first constitutional amendment was passed,” said Josh Gold, political director for the Hotel Trades Council. “We wanted to make sure that the state protected its proprietary interests, and that the jobs created would be good jobs, and that was done first in the budget and then again in the legislation.”

Still, some decried the union benefits in the casino proposal.

“[The casino bill] has an impressive giveaway,” said E.J. McMahon, a senior fellow for tax and budgetary studies at the Center for Civic Innovation at the Manhattan Institute.

“To an unprecedented degree, they’ve rigged the whole thing so that organized labor has all the jobs. That alone was a huge win for them. Of course, the reason [Hotel Trades] got it was now they are going to be relied upon to help pass the thing.”

A close observer of Albany politics, McMahon views most of legislative victories for organized labor this session as a loss for the flagging upstate economy, arguing that Cuomo and the Legislature chose to focus on cozying up to unions rather than turning their attention toward natural gas drilling, which has the potential to be a major job creator in New York. McMahon added that even certain legislation enacted that does not serve the interests of organized labor this session, such as a binding arbitration cap designed to give leverage to struggling municipalities in bargaining negotiations with local unions, was ultimately toothless. The final bill failed to include a provision revising the Triborough Amendment, which locks in all labor contract provisions even after a contract has expired, levying a large fiscal burden on upstate cities.

“The [binding arbitration] bill was tailored to placate [local municipal unions],” McMahon said. “It was just enough for him to say, ‘I did something,’ and not enough to change their world.”

Still, as Susan Kent, the president of the Public Employees Federation pointed out, a revision of the Triborough Amendment would have alienated Cuomo’s labor support at a time when he was gearing up for re-election in 2014.

“The governor going anywhere [near the Triborough] will come back to bite him,” Kent said. “[Cuomo] said that last year at a meeting with the AFL-CIO. He knows how far he can push things, but he’s a smart politician, and he’s not going to push them to where he’s not going to be able to reach that base at all.”