Guest Columns


What the Big Apple tells us about the Big Cheese — and what it says about unions

The media likes bold images, big conflict and simple story lines, so it’s not a surprise that the panoramic mob of angry Davis-Bacon Cheeseheads squaring off against an arch conservative Governor has the rapt attention of the media. In truth, the Madison Moment was a breaking point in our politics that deserves the breadth of coverage that it has earned.

But the real story is that it isn’t only Wisconsin where public sector unions are locked in a blood feud for the fiscal heart and soul of a government subdivision that’s drowning in red ink. And for that matter, it isn’t only Wisconsin, Ohio, New Jersey and Indiana where Type-A Government CEO’s are demanding that public sector employees share in the sacrifice of rescuing public balance sheets that are slouching toward insolvency. 

Republican Governors named Walker, Kasich, Christie and Daniels are indeed thumping unions with a Teddy Roosevelt-sized fiscal stick, and they are resetting the power curve away from the union bosses in their states with each and every swing. But this is where the story starts, not ends. The more important indicator about the state of the unions in America is that Republican Governors aren’t alone. Not by a long shot.

Take New York, where its Governor and the most powerful Mayor in America, both of whom boast a more liberal political stripe than any of the aforementioned gubernatorial union busters, are locked in their own seismic struggle with the bargaining battalions that organize their state and local employees. Like Nixon to China, Clinton to the Era of Big Government, Reagan to Democrats, and (sadly) George W. Bush to the expansion of the federal entitlement state, the budget fights between these usual political allies in NY may portend an even more fundamental realignment away from the almighty public sector union in statehouses, courthouse and city halls than the “Madison Moment” storyline suggests. 

After all, when Republicans and unions are shooting at each other, it’s just another day in political paradise. But when Democrats are telling their chief financial underwriters to stand down, something seminal is afoot.

And so it is in New York, where the newly minted Governor, with a name betrothed to Democratic royalty, is locked in a Madison-sized struggle with public employees as part of his bid to balance a budget where revenues and expenditures are badly disjoint. Last week, the teachers union took to the airwaves to attack Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo’s budget plan, which cuts education funding, and public employee compensation to the tune of $450 million. Not surprisingly, the unions’ bargaining big guns are driving a hard sell, but so is Cuomo. The Governor has warned that if the unions succeed in convincing the legislature to scuttle these education reductions, pay cuts and pension reforms, he’ll be forced to terminate nearly 10,000 state employees. 

Cuomo, the ambitious Democratic pol that he is, is careful to point out that he’s not interested in taking away the collective bargaining powers of the Empire State’s mighty labor overlords, a none-too-subtle effort on the part of the Democratic head-of-state to distinguish himself from Walker, Kasich, et al. But in the near term at least, that’s a distinction without much of a difference, since Cuomo has put an unabashed bull’s-eye on the very things that the same unions collectively-bargain for. In any case, that distinction doesn’t seem to have spared Cuomo the union hot seat, as evidenced by the million dollar ad-buy trashing the Democrat Governor’s budget balancing plan.

About 150 miles south of Albany, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is embroiled in an even uglier clash with municipal, police and fire unions over the same — pay, pension reform and the like. And as you’d expect in the city where taxi drivers flip off cops, the rhetoric is oozing vitriol. 

Like his Governors around the nation, Bloomberg’s facing a government balance sheet five feet under water. To deal with the mess, the Mayor has proposed his own round of pay cuts and layoffs to public employees and teachers, and pension reforms that look a lot like those enacted in Colorado last year. And the most infuriating part of it all for the unions? Bloomberg has the audacity to suggest that — wait for it! — teacher layoffs be based on actual job performance, rather than simply keeping those teachers who have punched the clock longest and terminating those who are most junior. 

Bloomberg has also proposed rolling back a $12,000 bonus payment to police, firefighters and retirees — a payment over and above their pay and pension check.  Bloomberg has wryly suggested that the city can’t afford hundreds of millions of dollars in union “Christmas bonuses” during these desperate times.

All of this, of course, has the unions twitter-pated. And they ain’t pulling any punches either. The head of the NYC police union put it as only the head of the NYC police union could: “We did endorse (Mayor Bloomberg) in the past… but today we are calling him a liar.” The head of the firefighters union was equally circumspect, saying: “As we approach the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Mike Bloomberg wants to say to firefighters and police officers who were there that day and didn’t die, I’m going to steal money from your pocket.”

Like Cuomo, Bloomberg is quick to proclaim that he’s not after collective bargaining powers, only the stuff for which such powers are arrayed. And like Cuomo, this seems to have spared Bloomberg exactly zero when it comes to wrath of the labor leaders he once called friends.

But like Cuomo, Bloomberg is undeterred, as he presses on with a cause that fiscal sanity seems to require.

The New York story is important in its own right, but it also suggests that something more fundamental is happening than the popularized “Republican vs. Union,” Madison Moment storyline lets on. And unless the public sector powerhouses stop marching, stop bullying and start bending to the fiscal imperatives that confront sober-minded leaders like Walker, Cuomo, Bloomberg, and Christie, it’s a story that almost certainly won’t end well for the union leaders who in New York, Wisconsin and elsewhere used to be called King.

Josh Penry is a former Minority Leader in the state Senate. He briefly ran for the Republican nomination for governor in 2010. He is originally from Grand Junction and is currently working as a consultant for an energy company. His columns will appear twice a month in The Colorado Statesman.