spectrum strikers

‘A HUGE VICTORY’: Striking public-sector workers, such as these members of Local 3 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers during a September 2017 rally against Charter Spectrum, will be able to receive unemployment benefits three weeks after a work stoppage, under legislation signed Feb. 6 by Governor Cuomo. Until then, they would have waited nine weeks.

The period of time striking private-sector workers must wait before they start receiving unemployment benefits has been significantly reduced.

Governor Cuomo earlier this month signed legislation that cuts the time workers must wait from nine weeks to three weeks.  

Compromise

Until now, workers on strike could file for benefits after two weeks but had to wait out a 49-day suspension period before they received their unemployment checks. The new law cuts the suspension period to a single week.

The acceleration was wel

The process for City Council staffers to form an independent union continues to advance, with formal discussions underway between the Council Speaker’s office, the city Corporation Counsel and the attorney retained by the union organizers.

The discussions follow-up on a Jan. 27 letter from the union organizing committee to Council Speaker Corey Johnson advising him that they had obtained sign-up cards from a majority of the workers who serve the individual Council Members and the central staff of the City Council Finance Division.

More Than 250 on Board

The organizers wrote they had collected cards from 60 percent of the 391 staffers assigned to individual Council Members and 88 percent of the 27 staff members assigned to Council’s Finance Division.

At his Feb. 11 press conference, Mr. Johnson reiterated his pledge to support voluntary recognition of the union but added that key legal questions remained to be answered.

“I have not put up any roadblocks and I have said over and over again that I support them and what they are doing, but this has to be done in a legal way,” he said. “We are in uncharted territory for the City Council. Does the group negotiate with the Office of Labor Relations? Do they negotiate with the Speaker? We don’t know yet.”

Mr. Johnson said that he believed the union drive was the second of its kind, following a push in the Delaware State legislature.

Going with AFSCME

Last month, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that a majority of the 40 Delaware staffers had committed to signing up with Council 81 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

A spokesperson for the Corporation Counsel’s Office confirmed lawyers for the city had spoken with Dina Kolker, an attorney with Stroock, Stroock and Lavan, who represents the staff organizing committee.

Mr. Johnson, noting he was not a lawyer, said it was not clear yet how formal recognition would be memorialized. “But I am proud of the work they have done,” he said. “I think there has been organizing done on hours and that’s fine. I had no issue with that.”

In a phone interview, Zara Nasir, a Council staffer who has been acting as spokeswoman for the organizing drive, said the union boosters were encouraged by the pace of the process and Mr. Johnson’s comments.

Moving Along

“We seem to be moving towards voluntary recognition,” she said. “Our lawyer will be scheduling regular calls. This is all new territory, so we are establishing new relationships as we work through how an employer who's never had a union actually engages with one.”

Under the current arrangement, all Council staffers are outside the civil-service system and considered “at will” employees who can be terminated at any time.

And the pay for jobs such as Legislative Assistant or Community Liaison can vary by tens of thousands of dollars and is set by individual Council Members.

A majority of Members have expressed enthusiastic support for a union in City Hall interviews and e-mail exchanges.

The organizing effort had been underway for months but surfaced publicly as the Council last Octgober deliberated in the case of Council Member Andy King, who twice in two years had allegations substantiated that he sexually harassed and abused staff members.

The probe was sparked by the discovery that in violation of Council workplace policies, he terminated a staffer who accused him of sexual harassment in 2015, a charge that was upheld in 2017.

Included in the latest round of substantiated charges were allegations that Mr. King “repeatedly intimidated and punished staff” to prevent them from cooperating with the internal probe, and “routinely required” staffers to use their personal vehicles to chauffeur him.

At the Council’s Oct. 29 meeting, it sanctioned Mr. King with a 30-day suspension without pay and a $15,000 fine and installed a monitor over his office’s operations until the end of his term, but a resolution to expel him was defeated.

comed by the state’s labor leaders, including the president of the state AFL-CIO, Mario Cilento, an ally of Mr. Cuomo’s, who called the legislation “a huge victory for unionized workers.”

“Once again New York State is leading the nation in protecting working people,” he said in a statement following the Governor’s Feb. 6 signing of the bill. “The difficult decision to exercise their right to strike is made by workers only after their employer forces their hand by threatening to diminish their wages, benefits and conditions of employment. It is an absolute last resort.”

Mr. Cuomo was under pressure to sign similar legislation last year during an autoworkers strike against General Motors that, according to Newsday, involved roughly 3,400 workers in New York. That measure, though, would have allowed striking workers to collect unemployment after just a week. The Governor declined to sign that measure into law.

A compromise with members of the Legislature to extend the wait time to three weeks altogether appeared to mollify the Governor.

The bill's sponsor, Sen. Timothy Kennedy, a Democrat who represents parts of Erie County and most of Buffalo met with representatives of the United Auto Workers a little less than a year ago, and concluded that the seven-week waiting period was unreasonable. He said it obliged union members to bargain “with their hands tied behind their backs.”

“This was not only unfair, but it was unethical to give employers such leverage over workers and their families,” Senator Kennedy said in a statement. “Seven weeks can be two months’ rent, two car payments, two mortgage payments, child- support payments, day-care costs, or putting food on the table for your family, just for a fair day's pay.” 

'Increase Strike Chances'

The Empire Center for Public Policy opposed the bill, with the Albany think tank’s policy analyst, Ken Girardin, arguing that the unemployment-insurance program was created to provide benefits to workers who lost their jobs through, as the U.S. Labor Department put it, “no fault of their own.”

Striking workers, on the other hand, make a decision to stop working. The legislation, he wrote in May 2019, would give unions “less of a disincentive to strike.”

“Granting UI benefits after three weeks will reduce the perceived financial risk of striking, and increase the danger of work stoppages,” he wrote in January.

New York had the second-highest rate of workers represented by unions in 2019, with 22.7 percent of those employed represented, trailing only Hawaii, where 25.5 percent were represented, according to the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Although the total number of people employed in New York State grew to nearly 8.3 million last year from just over 8.2 million in 2009, the number of workers represented by unions declined to just under 1.9 million from just under 2.2 million during that period.

The legislation does not apply to public-sector union workers. While those workers have the right to organize and be represented, they are prohibited under the state Taylor Law from going on strike, and they and their unions face stiff penalties for violations.


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