Public-Sector Unions in the Northeast are a Tough Group to Please

The cozy relationship between liberal governors in Northeast states and Big Labor is becoming strained. Elected Democrats are realizing how strongly strings were attached to the campaign contributions from unions and are seeing resistance to any kind of fiscally responsible reform. To Big Labor’s chagrin and taxpayer’s glee, governors from Connecticut, New York, and Massachusetts are currently focused on fiscal responsibility, not reelection.

Gov. Dannel Malloy of Connecticut tried to negotiate with state unions to balance his state’s budget, stating he was the antithesis of Gov. Chris Christie and his attacks on unions. This move has backfired. Gov. Malloy believed that Big Labor would be reasonable and take the concessions to keep state workers employed. Now with a $1.6 billion budget gap, the layoffs will begin. The true test of Gov. Malloy’s resolve to protect the taxpayer will come during his reelection campaign. Will the fiscal solvency of Connecticut be Gov. Malloy’s top priority or will maintaining the steady stream of cash from government employee unions?

In Massachusetts, Gov. Deval Patrick is reviewing the budget that was approved by lawmakers (made up of a Democratic majority). One detail of the budget that has sparked angry reactions from public-sector unions is curbing collective bargaining for municipal employees’ health care benefits. Gov. Patrick has only a few days remaining to sign the bill. His decision should be simple: sign the bill. Or as House Speaker Robert DeLeo (D) put it, “[T]his common-sense reform will save $100 million for cities and towns and preserve the jobs of fire-fighters, police officers and teachers.” However, Gov. Patrick is facing considerable union pressure to reject the budget, which saves $100 million, and it might not be as easy as commonsense would lead you to believe.

New York, which has the highest union density out of all 50 states, has been able to make slight inroads on achieving fiscal responsibility. However, most of these gains are likely only for the short term. Gov. Andrew Cuomo was able to obtain concessions with the Civil Service Employees Association, the state’s largest public-sector union. The agreement includes increased health care benefits contributions from state workers and a three-year wage freeze. Unfortunately, this is followed by a two-year pay increase. Without similar concessions from other public-sector unions, layoffs will be needed. Even with further concessions to avoid layoffs, devoid of true reform, these concessions from unions will not last. The instant New York gains fiscal solvency, Big Labor will be knocking on the door to revert to their previous unsustainable contracts and benefits.

Congress ought to take a look at these unlikely left-of-center executives who have astonishingly disturbed the liberal status quo in their states. If governors from union havens can persuade state legislatures or gain concessions from public-sector unions to achieve balanced budgets, then Congress should as well. States all across the U.S. are proving that, with strong leadership and a great deal of financial pressure, reform can be advanced.