laurel-and-hardy-shh-150x150-5976094Why are contract negotiations between public officials and public employee unions routinely conducted behind closed doors? One of New York’s largest public-sector unions has spilled the beans: it’s better for them.

The Public Employees Federation (PEF), which represents about 52,000 state employees, this week issued a video update on its negotiations with the Cuomo administration. Lead negotiator Darlene Williams said:

“While we will do our best to keep you informed, it is important to understand that we cannot negotiate a contract in the public as that will only hurt our efforts by showing our hand and giving the governor’s team an advantage in bargaining.”

Translation: letting the public see what’s going on would help Cuomo drive a harder bargain on behalf of state taxpayers, and that can’t be allowed.

“The public,” here, includes PEF’s own members, who don’t know which of their concerns are (and aren’t) making it on to the negotiating table. Union executives are pleased to take contract talks behind closed doors in no small part because it gives them plausible deniability when deals don’t meet specific expectations.

Private talks also let unions shield their original demands from public scrutiny, helping them engender greater support from voters. New York unions have been known to demand contract language shielding workers from termination the first time they’re caught using heroin on the job. And they routinely seek benefit levels that exceed those to which private-sector employees are accustomed.

Union contracts dictate more than just pay and benefits. They set the terms and conditions under which most government services are delivered, such as the length of the work day and the roles of employees. But in the 52 years since New York’s adopted its public-sector collective bargaining law, the Taylor Law, public officials have succumbed to the pernicious falsehood that union negotiations must take place behind closed doors.

To be sure, once union negotiations have begun in secret, they must remain there. Both management and labor face sanctions if they divulge what’s gone on behind closed doors, as such an action would be considered bargaining in “bad faith.” But that only applies because management routinely consents to taking matters outside public view—which, for labor, constitutes a win from the onset.

Once a deal is reached, elected officials routinely rush to ratify deals before the public can examine the cost or policy implications.

The results, in some cases, have been ruinous not only for taxpayers but also for government employees themselves. A hurried 2007 labor deal between the Southern Tier village of Johnson City and its firefighters resulted in the village inadvertently agreeing to 41 percent raises over five years. The result: firefighters had to be laid off.

The lack of transparency around labor talks remains a problem long after the ink dries.

Public employers are routinely failing to file ratified labor contracts with the state Public Employment Relations Board as required by PERB’s regulations. After 675 deals were signed and filed with the state in 2006, just 31 contracts were filed last year. This suggests at least 95 percent of public employers are ignoring a rule that exists to make sure taxpayers can see the commitments their elected officials have made. And a 2014 Empire Center review of local government and school districts found most were failing to even post their ratified labor contracts on their websites.

To his credit, Governor Andrew Cuomo last year proposed a modest reform that would have required contracts to be made public “no later than when such proposed terms are sent to members of the employee organization for ratification,” meaning taxpayers would be able to review and weigh in on deals before their elected officials can ratify it—and force them to abide by the terms for years to come.

That prompted Fran Turner, a lobbyist for the Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA), to push back in her legislative testimony:

“We’re very much opposed to it because our members should be able to vote on their contract before it goes public to the citizens. Right?”

Wrong. It’s the citizens who have to find the money to pay for these deals. They deserve to see what they involve before they’re permanent. And they deserve to see how they’re made.

About the Author

Ken Girardin

Ken Girardin is the Empire Center’s Director of Strategic Initiatives.

Read more by Ken Girardin

You may also like

Seeking Bigger Federal Handout, Cuomo Proposes Record Budget

Somewhere within that vast fog bank of a FY 2022 Executive Budget that Governor Cuomo is a structural budget gap, opened during the pandemic recession and temporarily obscured by piles of federal cash that will eventually be gone with the wind. Once a Read More

Amid Cuomo’s Fulminations, New York’s Budget Gap Keeps Shrinking

State tax receipts in the month of December came in $1.4 billion above the latest projection by Governor Cuomo's Division of the Budget (DOB), according to a cash report released late today by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli's office. on the numbers Read More

The State’s Vaccine Appointment System Was Not Ready for Prime Time

The two top priorities Governor Cuomo identified in his State of the State speech Monday morning were "Defeat COVID" and "Vaccinate New York." Read More

A Study in Contrasts: Cuomo’s 2011 and 2021 State of the State Messages

State of the State messages by New York governors customarily lay out general goals and priorities, rather than specifics. Even in general terms, however, there is a striking contrast between Governor Cuomo's latest State of the State and his first annual message to the Legislature, which he delivered five days after taking office 10 years ago. Read More

New York Is Still Waiting For a Viable COVID-19 Vaccination Plan

Going on four weeks into what should have been a mass vaccination program, it's increasingly clear that the Cuomo administration did not have – and does not have – an adequate plan for immunizing 20 million New Yorkers. Read More

Pay Freeze for State Workers Extended—But (Again) Only Temporarily

The Cuomo administration is quietly extending a temporary freeze on scheduled pay hikes for about 135,000 unionized state government employees and public college faculty members—although the largest affected labor union says it still expects those bucks to flow retroactively to its members in the coming fiscal year. Read More

The Cuomo Administration Resists Sharing Records of its Vaccine Review

After second-guessing the FDA with its own vaccine task force, the Cuomo administration is declining to share even basic information about that panel's approval process until mid-February. Read More

Cuomo’s Summary of COVID-19 Contact Tracing Data Raises More Questions Than It Answers

The Cuomo administration's recently released summary of contact tracing data was a tantalizing disappointment. Information that could have clarified the risks of different activities during the coronavirus pandemic was pres Read More

Subscribe

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

CONTACT INFORMATION

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

Phone: 518-434-3100
Fax: 518-434-3130
E-Mail: info@empirecenter.org

About

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.