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Cuomo’s New York Labor Negotiator Stirs Bad Memories for Unions

After promising a wage freeze in his election campaign last year, Governor Andrew Cuomo, seen here, said he would dismiss workers if theres no agreement to produce the labor savings he wants in his $132.9 billion budget. Photographer: Mario Tama/Getty Images
After promising a wage freeze in his election campaign last year, Governor Andrew Cuomo, seen here, said he would dismiss workers if theres no agreement to produce the labor savings he wants in his $132.9 billion budget. Photographer: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Joseph Bress drew thousands of protesters to the New York Capitol when he led talks with unions under Governor Mario Cuomo in the 1990s. Now, Cuomo’s son, Andrew, is turning to the same negotiator to help wring $450 million from state employees to close a $10 billion budget gap.

As head of labor relations for Amtrak, the U.S. passenger railroad, Bress represented management during an eight-year impasse with the rail unions. It took a presidential panel to end the standoff in 2008 by recommending the raises workers sought.

“Bress represents the epitome of bad-faith bargaining, and I fear that New York state and its workers are in for a period of prolonged animosity and stalemate,” said Jed Dodd, who sat across the table from Bress as general chairman of the Philadelphia-based union representing Amtrak track workers.

After promising a wage freeze in his election campaign last year, Governor Andrew Cuomo, 53, said Feb. 1 he would dismiss as many as 9,800 workers if there’s no agreement to produce the labor savings he wants in his $132.9 billion budget. More than 90 percent of the state’s 196,000 employees are unionized.

Public unions are under attack across the U.S. as state and local governments look to close $125 billion in budget deficits by cutting workers or their benefits. Governors Scott Walker of Wisconsin and John Kasich of Ohio, both Republicans, want to go beyond reducing labor costs by curtailing workers’ rights to collective bargaining, actions that unions say would be their death knell.

New Duo

Contracts with most New York unions expire April 1. Cuomo, a Democrat, on March 2 named Bress, 66, and Todd Snyder, a restructuring expert at Rothschild Inc. who represented the U.S. Treasury during the General Motors Co. bailout, to continue talks the governor has started with union leaders.

Snyder, 48, has worked on dozens of corporate restructurings. As a financial adviser to United Airlines in 2005, he said the company needed to cut workers’ pay and benefits to become profitable, attract lenders and emerge from bankruptcy.

Snyder is working free, and compensation for Bress is to be determined, said Josh Vlasto, a spokesman for Cuomo.

Attempts to reach Bress by telephone were unsuccessful at his Washington phone number and at the District of Columbia Retirement Board, where he is a trustee. Vlasto didn’t respond to requests to speak with Bress. Snyder didn’t respond to messages left at his New York office.

Just a Messenger

“The question is whether Andrew Cuomo sticks to his guns or folds,” said Jeffrey Stonecash, a political science professor at Syracuse University in central New York. Bress’s history doesn’t matter so much because he’s “a messenger with an understanding of what the governor is trying to achieve and that his job is to make it happen.”

Cuomo has responded to organized labor’s complaints about hiring high-paid consultants instead of unionized workers by ordering on March 2 that state agencies reduce consultant contracts by 10 percent before renewal.

The Amtrak negotiations still have some rail union officials miffed over their length and what they say was Bress’s penchant for avoiding the negotiating table. They say that the passenger unions got the same settlement as workers at freight carriers, as was the case in previous years. The agreement included retroactive pay increases.

‘Still Rankles’

“There was a pettiness about him that still rankles,” Dodd said, referring to disciplinary actions, later overturned, against workers on a picket line. Amtrak negotiators’ said its chronic losses meant they shouldn’t pay as much as profitable freight railroads, “ignoring the fact that there’s no profitable passenger railroad in the world.”

Officials at New York’s two largest public-employee unions aren’t saying much publicly about Cuomo’s negotiators before formal talks begin March 21.

“We’ve had our ups and downs with Bress,” said Stephen Madarasz, a spokesman for the Civil Service Employees Associaton, which represents 68,000 state workers, the most of any union. The negotiations in the early 1990s led to threats of firings, lawsuits opposing delays in state paychecks and a rally of 20,000 workers at the Capitol in Albany and nearby governor’s residence, he said.

“It was a very contentious negotiation,” he said.

This year, union rallies in Albany to oppose Cuomo’s budget cuts and urge extension of higher tax rates due to expire Dec. 31 have attracted crowds of 200 or fewer.

Knows the Workforce

The agreements eventually struck with unions in 1992 and 1993 didn’t include any raise for the period since 1991 when the contracts expired. The unions dropped lawsuits opposing deferrals in workers’ pay until they leave service, Madarasz said. Some workers were without a contract for two years.

“At the end of the day, he conducted himself professionally,” Madarasz said. “One benefit is that he knows the state workforce and already understands the history and reasons behind the contracts.”

Darcy Wells, a spokeswoman for the Public Employees Federation, the state’s second-largest union, with about 50,000 workers, said, “We’ll work with whoever we have to work with.” She declined to describe earlier negotiations with Bress, saying “the situation of the state has certainly changed.”

At the end of 2010, former Governor David Paterson dismissed about 900 workers after unions refused a plan to furlough workers, delay pay or sacrifice any of the 4 percent pay increase that began April 1 of that year. About 130,000 workers are directly under the governor’s control.

Labor Savings

Labor savings sought by Cuomo may come from increasing workers’ share of health-care costs, freezing automatic pay increases based on longevity and changing rules for overtime, Howard Glaser, an adviser to the governor and director of state operations, said at a March 3 legislative hearing in Albany.

If there is no agreement with unions, worker dismissals could begin soon after the April 1 start of the fiscal year, he said. Changing health benefits could produce savings that exceed New York’s goal by a third, Glaser said.

“The state’s fiscal situation requires new thinking about how to reduce costs while maintaining service,” he said.

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