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Union efforts paid off with big wins in 2016 New York State budget

ALBANY – Organized labor rules in the newly adopted state budget.

Top union and business leaders say they have not witnessed so many victories for labor in decades, as the forces of public and private-sector unions came together to leave a remarkable footprint on the new $156 billion budget.

“It’s nice to be on the offense,’’ said Mario Cilento, president of the state AFL-CIO, which represents 2.5 million workers in New York.

The wins were impressive and across the board, leaving groups representing big and small businesses reeling as the final budget bills were adopted Friday.

“It’s just one thing after another … It makes for a discouraging outcome for us,’’ said Kenneth Pokalsky, vice president of government affairs at the Business Council of New York State, the largest statewide business association.

Some victories were obvious, like a hike in the minimum wage and a new family leave program that grants workers up to 12 weeks off to care for family members.

But there were other victories – both in getting initiatives approved or stopping proposals that unions opposed.

A 6.5 percent hike in state aid to schools will help districts afford salary hikes for unionized teachers.

A $54 billion multiyear state construction program for upstate roads and bridges and downstate transit will create jobs for tens of thousands of union trade members.

A $300 million tax break aimed exclusively at small businesses was jettisoned and replaced with a personal income tax cut.

Labor beat back the business community’s attempt to reduce costs of the workers’ compensation insurance program, and the Business Council said the Legislature denied a request to return $50 million to businesses that overpaid into the workers’ compensation system.

Labor defeated the Catholic Church and others that pressed for a tax break for parents with children in private schools.

Legislators reacting to union pressure also undid an effort to keep 70 public schools around the state on a special “receivership” list of academically failing schools.

And the Business Council said that, despite large spending increases in some areas, the new budget shaves tax credits under a key economic development program.

Labor rules, businesses lose

After a week of furious lobbying to try to push back against labor, business interests woke up Friday a bit stunned.

“I think this budget is sort of a crossroads moment for a lot of folks,’’ said Michael Durant, state director of the National Federation of Independent Business. “The small-business owners … were very engaged in this process, trying to push back on minimum wage and paid family leave. It was a far more unified business community than usual. And we didn’t even get a quarter loaf.”

Labor took advantage of some key political moments at the Capitol, Durant believes, and relied on the support of Democrats who control the Assembly. Unions also helped push Cuomo toward his increasing shift to the political left. And, for the final leg, organized labor cast a shadow over the Senate Republican conference, which is fighting this year to maintain its thin margin of control in the 63-member chamber.

To put an exclamation point on the week, Durant said he watched in amazement when the GOP-run Senate voted 61-1 for the budget bill that increased the minimum wage – despite a week of closed-door talks where Senate Republicans threatened to go against any sort of wage hike.

“New York has become more and more labor friendly at the expense of small business and taxpayers,’’ Durant said.

Labor leaders rejoice

Nearly 25 percent of New York State’s public and private-sector workers belong to a union, the biggest percentage among all 50 states.

Top labor leaders said this year’s victories in Albany even surprised them.

“I’ve not seen a time when the labor movement was able to secure two groundbreaking victories in one legislative session, and in this case one budget cycle,’’ said AFL-CIO leader Cilento, who has 24 years of labor work under his belt. “It shows the collective voice of the labor movement was heard.”

He called the victories “extraordinary.”

Indeed, one Democratic Party insider said “this whole budget process was driven by the unions.’’

Unions invested most heavily in the $15-per-hour minimum wage campaign.

One labor-supported group pushing for the wage hike spent $1.7 million in January and February. Most of the money went for advertising, but it also paid for consultants, banners, research and the rental of an RV that Cuomo used for his tour in support for the minimum wage increase.

Labor did concede to Senate GOP demands that upstate will not hit $15 per hour minimum by any set date, instead rising to $12.50 in 2021. That is when a study will be conductd to determine minimum levels upstate after that.

New York City hits $15 in 2018, while downstate suburbs rise to $15 per hour in 2022.

As for family leave, Cilento said labor leaders of many unions – among them teachers, health care workers, steelworkers and plumbers – had unified support for that program because all could see the benefits.

And even though most union members already make more than the $15 per hour minimum wage, workers could “understand that when you raise the floor, you raise the ceiling,” Cilento said.

“If you are making $15, $17 or $18 an hour, you know when the union goes to the negotiating table next time around, you’re going to point to $15 and say my wage should go to $20 or $22 … Everybody recognized that everyone’s lives are going to prosper because of this,’’ Cilento said.

The health care workers union SEIU1199 was most out front in the public fight, but local unions representing several professions and trades held rallies and news conferences and made phone calls across the state to press for the wage hike.

Other victories also added up, such as the $1.5 billion state aid increase for schools and the big roads and transit capital program, Cilento said.

“That’s an awful lot of success for the first three months,” he said of the legislative session.

Teachers union scores wins

The New York State United Teachers, the powerful union that has almost single-handedly helped to elect some legislators, won a string of victories in the budget.

Perhaps its only lobbying loss was an increase in state aid to charter schools, yet the teachers union managed to beat back several other requests from those alternative education schools.

The union supported the end of the Gap Elimination Adjustment, or GEA, which allowed the state to claw back money due each year to school districts as a way to balance the state’s books. The union claimed that $400 million success with the Senate Republicans, who pushed the issue hardest.

“We don’t have to talk about those three little letters ever again,’’ said Andrew Pallotta, NYSUT’s executive vice president.

Pallotta believes NYSUT’s efforts last year involving protests and rallies against Common Core initiatives helped with the other victories in the 2016 budget.

Future battle

NYSUT is now planning its major budget fight for 2017: reworking the state’s property tax cap program.

The union believes that cap has made it too difficult for schools to raise revenues at the local level.

Though there has been a truce – compared with the all-out war over the past few years – between Cuomo and NYSUT, the union’s increasing attention to weaken the tax cap program would quickly end that undeclared peace. The tax cap is one of Cuomo’s signature initiatives.

But that’s for next year.

On Friday, it was time to celebrate.

“This is a good year for labor. A very good year for labor,’’ Pallotta said.

The legislative session ends in June. It would seem unlikely, with the Senate up for grabs, that Republicans would willingly take on deep-pocketed unions that could try to unseat them.

Still, about all business groups could do Friday was hope for some attention in the coming months on workers’ compensation costs and making natural gas more available to employers not located near pipelines.

“There’s plenty left to do,’’ said the Business Council’s Pokalsky.