Talk about ingratitude. Some of New York’s top labor leaders are making it known that they may not support the reelection of David Paterson, long one of their most steadfast allies in Albany.

It’s not as if this governor wasn’t already doing everything in his power to minimize the recession’s impact on organized labor in New York.

Paterson caved to the unions’ top state budget priority – a record increase in personal income taxes – after saying for months that it would be a bad idea. And that’s not all. The governor also:

  • Stopped pushing his own proposal to cap school property taxes, which was stridently opposed by the state teachers union, after it surprisingly managed to pass the state Senate last year.
  • Allowed the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to seek binding arbitration of a new contract with Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union, forgoing the troubled MTA’s best shot at negotiating changes in costly work rules and compensation levels.
  • Insisted on an agreement to ensure union wages and work rules apply to construction work on the biggest economic development project in New York’s history – a state-subsidized, $4.2 billion computer chip manufacturing plant north of Albany.
  • Pressured landlords that lease property to the state to pay prevailing union wages.

While governors in other hard-pressed states are actually reducing the salaries of their public workers, Paterson’s failure to wring significant concessions out of New York’s public employees unions has been especially notable. In the face of a $15 billion budget gap, he only meekly requested a wage freeze and a reduction in retiree health benefits from state unions – waiting until the final days of budget negotiations to warn of layoffs if givebacks weren’t forthcoming. Then, barely two months after the layoff threat, the governor rescinded it and backed off his request for a wage freeze – in exchange for the unions’ permission to let him offer $20,000 retirement incentives to 4,400 nonessential employees.

The unions also agreed to drop their opposition to the governor’s proposal to enroll future government workers in a new “tier” of pension benefits only slightly less lavish than those available to current employees. Under Paterson’s plan, public pensions in New York would remain far more generous than those typically available in the private sector. Most important of all, from the union standpoint, the existing defined-benefit system would be preserved, despite the billions in added costs it will soon impose on taxpayers.

To his credit, Paterson did veto an extension of increasingly unaffordable pensions for cops and firefighters. But his proposed replacement plan hasn’t even been voted on by the Assembly, much less the chaotic Senate, so the issue remains in limbo.

Ironically, the more Paterson panders to unions, the more he narrows his budgetary options and feeds the impression that he isn’t really in control, and the lower his job-approval ratings drop – accelerating a spiral of political decline that now has him in danger of losing union support.

There’s an important lesson in this for Andrew Cuomo and New York’s other potential gubernatorial candidates, Democrat and Republican alike.

Embracing the organized labor agenda may win you the backing of New York’s richest, best-organized special interest groups and of the political machines they control. But it will ultimately cost you the enduring support of just about everyone else, because the untrammeled power of labor unions in New York – especially government employee unions – shapes up as the single greatest obstacle to the Empire State’s economic and fiscal recovery.

In the end, what the unions fear most is being on the losing side. What they respect most is power, effectively wielded by a credible leader. And that is why they are on the verge of abandoning the best friend they ever had in New York’s governor’s office.

About the Author

E.J. McMahon

Edmund J. McMahon is Empire Center's founder and a senior fellow.

Read more by E.J. McMahon

You may also like

State senators to get a harsh reality check as their own workers unionize

Labor leaders were giddy when a group of state Senate employees last month announced their intent to unionize. Read More

Albany’s latest gift to the teachers union will shackle NYC schools — and their budgets

The Legislature last week put a new spin on the debate over “mayoral control” of New York City’s schools by shackling the Big Apple with a costly class-size mandate. Read More

Hochul’s first budget rewards unions at taxpayers’ expense — and sets the state on the road to insolvency

New Yorkers are aghast that the Buffalo Bills stadium deal, which will fill the pockets of a wealthy NFL team owner with their tax dollars, is in the state budget the Legislature just adopted. Read More

Pray Hochul won’t cave to union calls for a big pension giveaway — at NY taxpayer expense

While Tier 6 wasn’t the “bold and transformational” breakthrough touted by then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2012, it was a solid net positive for taxpayers Read More

The Fear Behind City Union’s Strike Threat

Polling this month showed that two-thirds of the nation’s teachers would prefer to stay out of the classroom this fall, and teachers unions across America are poised to keep schools from reopening. The unions say the safety of their members is their top concern, yet, truth is, their bottom lines are just as critical. That’s because the pandemic represents their biggest financial threat since teachers won the right to stop paying them. Read More

New York’s Subsidy for Striking Unions

Unemployment insurance programs are meant to help people who become jobless through no fault of their own. Nearly every state has disallowed benefits to employees who are on strike. But New York’s state Senate recently voted to let strikers get benefits one week after walking off the job—essentially putting them on equal footing with those who are laid off. Read More

Blame unions for New York’s pricey giveaway to Amazon

The state-city deal to bring one of Amazon’s two new headquarters to Long Island City might at least have provided New York City with another big benefit—a much-needed model of advanced, efficient building practices. After all, Amazon isn’t just a big corporation: It’s widely admired as a global leader in technological innovation. Instead, it appears the deal will ensure that Amazon is saddled with the same arcane and outmoded construction-union work rules and compensation levels that have saddled New York City with the nation’s highest urban construction costs. Read More

Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion was beyond corrupt

The overarching scandal here wasn’t bid-rigging or the pay-to-play pattern in the developers’ contributions to the governor’s reelection campaign. At the root was a simply awful public policy — corporate welfare on steroids — that neither Cuomo nor most of his critics have definitively renounced, even now. Read More


Sign up to receive updates about Empire Center research, news and events in your email.


Empire Center for Public Policy
30 South Pearl St.
Suite 1210
Albany, NY 12207

Phone: 518-434-3100

General Inquiries:

Press Inquiries:


The Empire Center is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank located in Albany, New York. Our mission is to make New York a better place to live and work by promoting public policy reforms grounded in free-market principles, personal responsibility, and the ideals of effective and accountable government.

Empire Center Logo Enjoying our work? Sign up for email alerts on our latest news and research.
Together, we can make New York a better place to live and work!