Governor Cuomo April 12 signed into law a bill public-employee unions consider a powerful safeguard against a significant loss of dues-paying members if the U.S. Supreme Court later this spring rules in favor of an Illinois worker who said that it was unconstitutional to make him pay the equivalent of dues although he chose not to join a union.
Mr. Cuomo, in a ceremony before dozens of labor leaders and hundreds of other union officials at the lower-Manhattan headquarters of the United Federation of Teachers, called the lawsuit part of a drive by wealthy interests—who funded the costs of that lawsuit—with the help of the Trump Administration to dismantle “the union movement piece by piece” and hurt the middle class by doing so.
“This is our fightback,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew declared before introducing Mr. Cuomo, who received a standing ovation. “New York can be the foundation for all over this country.”
'We'll Show How to Mobilize'
The Governor called the court case and the state’s response to protect public-employee unions “the tip of the iceberg” in a national battle to come. “We’re gonna be the state that shows how to mobilize and win,” he said, prompting cheers from union officials, including some representing private-sector unions who were not affected but attended in a show of unity at the request of State AFL-CIO President Mario Cilento.
The bill he enacted limits to those public workers who are paying dues the right to union-covered legal representation in grievance and disciplinary-arbitration hearings. Union leaders previously said that because of the expense involved in retaining private legal counsel for such proceedings, the law offered a powerful incentive for public workers to keep paying union dues.
Source of Battle
The Supreme Court case that has created anxiety among public-employee unions throughout the country involves what are known alternately as agency-shop or fair-share fees. Those who opt not to join such unions are still required to pay the equivalent of dues, but they are entitled to rebates on that portion of their money devoted to political activities such as election campaigns and lobbying. The lead plaintiff in the case before the high court, Janus v. AFSCME, has contended that because public-employee unions are dealing with government employers, all their activities are political in nature, including wage negotiations and matters involving working conditions.
Although the agency-fee rules were memorialized by a 1977 Supreme Court ruling involving a Detroit Teacher named Abood, unions believe that the makeup of the current court could produce a ruling that would overturn that decision. If employees who opted not to join unions were to be exempted from paying for the services they receive, labor leaders fear that some dues-paying members might also opt out, sharply reducing their income and forcing them to curtail operations.
Court cases seeking to weaken public-employee unions have been pursued for much of the past decade, but the Governor said the climate worsened once President Trump took office. He said his two appointees to the National Labor Relations Board were “both pro-corporate,” and that workplace “safety instructors have been reduced” at the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration under this administration.
‘Coming After You’
“They are coming at the union movement piece by piece [because] you built the middle class,” Mr. Cuomo said. “They want more power in the hands of management so they can exploit the workers...The union movement drove the civil-rights movement, it drove the women’s movement, it drove the environmental movement.”
He continued, “The extreme conservative movement—they are taking us back, and we are not going back, we are going forward.”
At times his 22-minute address had the feel of a campaign speech, as he targeted Republicans ranging from the President to GOP members of the New York congressional delegation. He also targeted Republicans in the State Senate, with whom he has worked smoothly over his seven-plus years as Governor.
Referring to those he described as “extreme conservatives,” Mr. Cuomo alluded to the negative aspects of the tax-cut bill and a last-minute insertion of a question about citizenship for the proposed U.S. Census questionnaire and said, “They’re going to do everything they can to hurt our state and hurt our values. This last election, our people were defrauded by President Trump. He said, ‘I’m your guy; I’m gonna fight for the middle class.’ And people had such pain that that bought it...It was a scam, it was a fraud.”
Corporations Get Fat
Instead of a tax plan that produced the promised relief for ordinary workers, the Governor continued, “He gave [corporations] a big, fat tax rebate. He’s been revealed as a fraud on that and everything else he’s done since.”
He decried the President’s crusade against undocumented immigrants, arguing that he himself was a descendant of such people. Referring to a common slur against Italian-American immigrants a century ago, the Governor said, “You know what 'wops'' stood for? ‘Without papers.’”
He continued, “They are spreading a social cancer in this country... you have more neo-Nazi groups created in the past two years than were created in the previous 20.”
The answer to such divisiveness, he told the audience, was to recognize the common enemy, and unite in opposition. “When you come together, there is nothing you can’t do,” Mr. Cuomo said. “We have to elect a Democratic Congress all across this state because the Republican Congressmen across this state have voted against the interests of the people they represent.”
He spoke of electing “a real majority” in the State Senate, which appeared to be a shot at Simcha Felder, the Senator representing Brooklyn’s Borough Park section. While elected as a Democrat, Mr. Felder has caucused with the Republicans, preventing a true Democratic majority even if those who had been part of the Independent Democratic Conference all vote with the regular conference from that party once Democrats gain a one-vote majority if, as expected, they win two special elections for vacant seats April 24.
Union leaders were less inclined to take a global political view, instead focusing on what they had gained as a result of the new law.
Goes Beyond Public Unions
Mr. Cilento called the bill-signing “a good day for a lot of reasons.” He said of the Janus case, “It’s not just an attack on the public sector. They’re the target, but there’s a bulls-eye on all of us.” He pointed out that unionized workers make on average $11,000 more than those who don’t have representation.
Noting that there are 28 states with right-to-work laws in effect to limit unionization, Mr. Cilento declared, “Not New York. Not here.”
He stopped just short of giving the Governor a re-election endorsement from the State AFL-CIO, which has 2.5 million workers under its banner, saying, “Andrew Cuomo has set now a standard for the rest of this country to follow.”
District Council 37 Executive Director Henry Garrido, after praising the Governor for his work in raising the state minimum wage to $15 an hour and enacting paid family leave statewide, said of the energized union forces, “We seem to see a movement of resurgence. We see resistance. Without the labor movement, immigrants like myself would not be able to go to school, to go to college.”