Securing an Extension in June Required Fighting to Stalemate in March (UPDATED)
UPDATE: The Senate passed the binding arbitration bill late Friday evening (Yeas 59; Nays 4). We will provide the vote count as soon as it’s available. June 21 is the first day of summer, however, it was a very cold day in January, when Governor Andrew Cuomo unveiled a state budget containing a provision that would remove the binding arbitration rights of firefighters, police and municipalities to seek resolution when contract disputes are unable to be fairly resolved.
Five months later, binding arbitration has been preserved. However, our efforts – all of us collectively – required a well thought out legislative and media strategy and at times felt like a bare-knuckled brawl that involved all the resources we could muster when Governor Cuomo sought to fast-track legislation as part of the state’s budget process.
You may recall that Harold Schaitberger and the International Association of Fire Fighters came to our aid, both politically and financially, as did thousands of our brothers and sisters at State Associations across the country. We were also joined by Mario Cilento, President of the New York State AFL-CIO and active and retired law enforcement voices from across the state in a fight designed to move the debate from the Governor’s strength – the Executive Budget process – to the regular legislative session.
And, while we were successful in the strategy, Governor Cuomo made it very clear that he was unwilling to extending the binding arbitration statute beyond the June 30 expiration date without significant “reform.” In addition, the New York State Conference of Mayors, relentlessly pursued short-sighted ideas and options ranging from pension smoothing to complex classifications and formulas for determining the fiscal health of a community, in an effort to block the path to pursuing binding arbitration.
The three month battle had reached a much needed stalemate, and when the legislature returned to Albany in mid-April, our attention and focus shifted to the Assembly and Senate. Despite aggressive and repeated attempts, both houses had failed to advance a straight extension to the existing statute. Simultaneously, negotiations with the Governor’s office repeatedly came to a standstill. It appeared that if a bill limited to providing a statutory extension were to pass both houses – Governor Cuomo would veto the measure – and return to his original unacceptable position that we fought so hard to defeat.
In mid-June, a hastily called meeting involving the stakeholders and the Governor was held in the Capitol. The intense discussions focused on modifications to the existing law that would accompany an extension that required arbitrators to consider a municipality’s fiscal health and ability to pay prior to determining the structure and magnitude of a contract award. We found this provision preferable, because in large part it mirrors the standards that arbitrators must follow today, and have followed for years. The Governor also advanced a separate notion providing financial incentives to local governments to seek operational efficiencies.
Just three days ago, as the deadline for introduction of legislation approached, the Governor merged the two ideas into a single bill and forced a “take it – or leave it” proposition. The legislation would grant a two year extension to the statute. In reviewing the details of the bill, NYSPFFA discovered that the Governor embedded language in the bill that would have capped awards and retroactively applied the statute to a series of existing arbitrations. This was totally unacceptable and despite the ultimate consequences, NYSPFFA refused to endorse these provisions and insisted that these elements be removed and the extension amended to a longer term. Our demands were met and the issues were ultimately remedied – the new law would have a three-year sunset clause and only be applied prospectively – to the consternation of our proponents.
It’s been a bruising five months. The Assembly passed the legislation (Yeas 108; Nays 16) late Thursday evening and the Senate also passed the bill late Friday (Yeas 59; Nays 4). The Governor will sign the bill shortly thereafter extending binding arbitration.
We pledged to our members and the general public to be part of a reasonable and responsible solution. Today, we’ve delivered on that promise. The reforms largely mirror existing provisions and considerations that have been in practice for many years that ensure security for our membership.
In reflecting on our actions and decisions, we knew that fire fighters and law enforcement professionals had earned the right to binding arbitration. We also knew that binding arbitration is fair to organized labor, municipal officials and taxpayers, and it ensures seamless public safety protection.
However, the true indicator of our success can be judged by those who howl the loudest at its outcome (including the New York State Conference of Mayors, the Association of Counties, and E.J. McMahon of the Empire Center). If they are unhappy, and they are, we must have done pretty well.
Thank you all for your ongoing and steadfast support