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PEF ratifies contract, avoids 3500 layoffs

State worker union members have ratified a contract that will prevent nearly 3500 lay offs , though members make several concessions, including a three year pay freeze. Cuomo says he’s “very happy”, and has rescinded the lay off notices that were to go out Friday.

The second contract offer was ratified by a two to one ratio, a big difference from the resounding defeat of the first proposal in September.  Governor Cuomo says he’s “surprised and gratified” at the margin of victory.

“This is really, really great,” said Cuomo “I’m very happy”.

The governor says the “dramatically different outcome” cannot be attributed to changes in the second contract offer, which he says were “minor”.  He instead thinks the win was the result of a change in tone during the second round of negotiations, and he says the lesson he’s learned is that it’s better to work collaboratively.

“You look at other states and other situations that have gotten combative,” said Cuomo. “This shows that collaboration works.”

The governor says in the end,  “cooler heads prevailed ”.

PEF union leaders, who had worked tirelessly to convince members that the contract should be approved, were also pleased and relieved.

After the first contract was rejected in September, Cuomo’s aides sent pink slips to 3500 workers. PEF Vice President Tom Comanzo says he thinks that had an effect on the more than 50,000 other union
members. Even though they were not losing their jobs right now, they likely knew someone who would be terminated if they voted no on the contract.

“We had names and faces,” said Comanzo.  “I think that helped make a difference.”

The contract approved by members includes a three year wage freeze, and larger contributions for health care coverage, although workers will now be able to offset the premiums by cashing in unused vacation time.  Initially, Cuomo sought nine unpaid furlough days, now those days will essentially be converted to a pay lag, and union members will be reimbursed for those days at the end of the contract. Anyone who retires before then also gets the money for those days, and the salary reductions won’t count against the final pension amount.

Workers were also give greater protection against lay offs in the future, a continuing concern as the economy worsens. PEF’s Comanzo says while it’s not in the actual contract, a side letter signed by
top Cuomo aide Howard Glaser says  the union has the right to go to arbitration if any new lay offs are proposed over the next four years.

“I feel that it would be very unlikely that they would have layoffs,” said Comanzo.

Back in June, during the first round of contract negotiations, PEF led a very vocal protest against Governor Cuomo outside the Capitol. PEF Vice President Comanzo says the union now expects to have a “very positive relationship” with Cuomo, and says his admisntration has agreed to form a joint labor management committee to examine one of the union’s chief grievances, what they say is excessive state
spending on outside contractors.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.