As Wisconsin’s governor is embroiled in a fight over fundamental guarantees for organized labor, the struggle between New York’s governor and the unions appears to feature more hype than bite so far.
In Wisconsin, with an even longer pro-union pedigree than New York, Republican Gov. Scott Walker is fighting to end collective bargaining for public unions and win other concessions. He said taxpayers can no longer afford the cost that drives deficits and cuts in support for education and other priorities.
“You could do the same here if you had the political will,” said the fiscally conservative Manhattan Institute’s E.J. McMahon of Gov. Andrew Cuomo. “The governor is giving no indication he is going to support any of that.”
The Democrat is threatening to freeze public salaries, which grew 14 percent over the last years of recession, and to eliminate up to 9,800 jobs through attrition and layoffs if he can’t exact $450 million in savings.
In his campaign and since, Cuomo derisively called out special interests he said are bleeding taxpayers. His rants helped score high poll numbers. In reality, his focus isn’t on declawing Albany’s powerful unions, but extracting savings to his bottom line.
Cuomo created a task force that has yet to come up with recommendations on perennial proposals aimed at reducing union power, which he said drives up spending. Among them would be an end to the so-called “triborough” amendment that allows public unions to continue to receive benefits and even automatic “step” increases when a contract expires. Governors have argued that put them at an extreme disadvantage in negotiating any concessions.
“On the surface, Cuomo is being seen as someone who is defying unions. In fact, he has never done any of that,” McMahon said.
Meanwhile, the unions have refrained from the personal vitriol they have aimed at former governors David Paterson, Eliot Spitzer and George Pataki when they targeted the work force.
“The tone is softer than it has been,” said Robert Ward of the Rockefeller Institute of Government. Part of the reason, he said, is Cuomo’s high public approval ratings after a strong victory in November. Such popularity might blunt TV ad campaigns by unions, such as the one about Spitzer’s proposed budget cuts in which a frantic mother drove her child to a hospital only to find it closed and a man in a wheelchair who pleaded with Paterson to spare him.
“Governor Cuomo is playing a brilliant game of keeping people just close enough to avert the worst ads that we have sometimes seen in the past,” Ward said.
“No one says we aren’t going to push back with advertising,” said Stephen Madarasz of Civil Service Employees Association union. “We’re trying to give him the benefit of a doubt … that is the way to go, not the way it is in Wisconsin.”
But there’s another reason: Fear.
“That’s always part of it,” Ward said. “When you are criticizing a governor, it’s always a balancing act of how far you go and this governor has a reputation for not taking criticism lightly. No doubt, people are keeping that in mind.”
Charles Barron says that’s about to change.
“The protest really brought to the fore what people are feeling and not expressing,” Barron said in an interview Tuesday. He said union leaders and legislators haven’t taken Cuomo on in earnest because Cuomo is “a very arrogant and vindictive person. And I think people are quietly cutting deals.”
Cuomo spokesman Josh Vlasto wouldn’t comment on the Sunday night disruption.
Barron, who lost a third-party run against Cuomo in November, said his Freedom Party will soon march from New York City Hall to Wall Street to force a higher income tax rate on New Yorkers making over $500,000.
“I think now you are going to hear a lot more,” Barron said. “The governor is not going to have a cakewalk.”
By MICHAEL GORMLEY,Associated Press
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.