Cuomo Moves to Prop Up Public-Sector Unions

New legislation tries to preempt Supreme Court ruling that could end coercive unionism

Governor Andrew Cuomo
Outgoing New York governor Andrew Cuomo (D.) / Getty Images
May 5, 2018

New York governor Andrew Cuomo is attempting to prop up public-sector unions in anticipation of a Supreme Court ruling that could end coercive payments.

A group of Illinois government workers are asking the Supreme Court to overturn four decades of precedent that allow agencies to require union dues or fee payments as a condition of employment. The plaintiffs argued in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees that public-sector unions are inherently political and funding them violates an individual's association and speech rights. Many in labor circles fear the Supreme Court will endorse this view, dealing a severe blow to union coffers if partial fee payers win the right to opt out of union membership entirely. New York Democrats passed a bill to shore up public-sector dues collections, limit employees' ability to cut off the unions representing their workplaces, and "deter the federal government's attempts to dismantle unions."

"Too often, and at the hands of this federal administration, we are seeing the labor movement going backwards … our efforts to protect working men and women are moving labor forward, making the workplace fairer and more just than ever before," Governor Cuomo said in a statement. "We will not let this federal administration silence New York's working class, we will support every voice in every community and in every industry, and we will do everything in our power to protect the right to achieve the American Dream."

The law would automatically reenroll workers into labor organizations each year and bolster union officials' ability to approach new hires. New York has the highest union membership rate in the country—one in four workers belong to labor groups, more than double the national rate of 10.7 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Janus case could deal a heavy blow to New York unions. An analysis from the Empire Center for Public Policy estimated they could lose as much as $110 million if workers win the right to withdraw their support.

Big Labor has been one of Cuomo's strongest financial supporters. Union organizations have donated about $2 million to his campaigns, according Project Vote Smart. The Cuomo administration did not return requests for comment about the legislation.

Cuomo said the Janus case is designed to hurt workers' collective bargaining rights. He praised public-sector unions as an "equalizer" in a speech to labor leaders as he signed the bill into law.

"You are the equalizer at the bargaining table during collective bargaining and they don't want that," he said. Republicans "want more power in the hands of management so they can exploit the worker."

Labor watchdogs criticized Cuomo for using the legislation to prop up his political allies. Vinnie Vernuccio, a labor policy expert at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, said it would "trap" government workers.

"Gov. Cuomo is trying to circumvent a Supreme Court case before it's even decided to trap public employees into paying union dues," he said. "Gov. Cuomo in New York and other states are looking to do anything they can for unions to keep collecting forced dues including making arbitrary windows in which workers can exercise their rights."

Peter List, a former union organizer who now works as a labor consultant, said Cuomo's bill should be seen in light of his tough primary fight with Sex and the City actress Cynthia Nixon.

"Cuomo's action is nothing more than a not-so-hidden attempt to curry favor with his union backers. He needs the union bosses in his back pocket as he tries to fend off Cynthia Nixon. This action does that," List said in an email. "Meanwhile, it puts New York State's public-sector employers into the position of being likely accomplices in potentially circumventing whatever the Supreme Court rules in the Janus decision."

Greg Mourad, vice president of the National Right to Work Committee, called the bill "shameful."

"This is a shameful handout to the union bosses that fund the campaigns of Governor Cuomo and his allies, all at the expense of taxpayers and independent workers who would never join or financially support a union if it were actually voluntary."

Cuomo said he hopes the legislation inspires other states to take measures to safeguard union privileges—similar legislation has passed in New Jersey as well.

"We're going to be the state that shows how to mobilize and how to win," he said.