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Fair deal for state union; PEF workers should grab the chance to save jobs by approving contract

The Public Employees Federation has a new contract proposal to consider only weeks after rejecting the previous one and only weeks before layoffs are scheduled to begin if this tentative agreement is also rejected. We hope union members will approve it.

The contract, with little in it to gladden members' hearts, is nonetheless a reasonable compromise given the economic facts of life right now and the harsh penalty awaiting those members who will bear the brunt of any layoffs.

The union, which represents 4,600 professional, scientific and health care workers in the Buffalo area alone, killed the previous tentative contract by a margin of 54 percent to 46 percent. With that, its members faced the prospect of 3,500 layoffs statewide.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo was willing to "tweak" the contract proposal to make it more acceptable to union members, though any changes had to take into account the details of contracts that other unions had already approved to avoid their own job losses.

The result is a contract of four years rather than five. Like the rejected contract, it calls for no raises in its first years and offers a 2 percent increase in the final year. It calls for nine days of furloughs, which will be repaid at the end of the contract period. It also includes higher health insurance co-payments, which has been a standard of private sector contracts for years.

The union's executive board of nearly 150 members approved the contract on Monday, but now the union members, themselves, must agree to it, and there is little room for maneuver. The ballots are due back by Nov. 3 and layoffs, if they become necessary, will begin the next day.

"We have a new agreement that better meets [members'] needs, and they should vote yes on it," PEF President Ken Brynien said after the executive board's meeting.

Layoffs are always most painful for the individuals and their families, but they can also have ripple effects throughout the economy, both in terms of diminished buying power and of loss of vital services. Professional, scientific and health care workers certainly provide valuable services. We hope they will all stay on the job.

It is critical for the state to bring its financial house into order and, as in the private sector, layoffs can be necessary in that pursuit. In this case, they are not necessary. A deal is on the table to prevent any job losses -- a deal that has gained the imprimatur of the PEF's leaders.

Union members spurned their board's endorsement of the previous contract, of course, so it is uncertain how this will play out. We hope the rank and file will take a deep breath and choke it down, if that's what it takes.

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