ALBANY -- The increasingly nasty relations between New York's powerful public employee unions and the state has made its way to a historic showdown in court as unions try to stop furloughs before they are scheduled to begin next week.
Four unions filed legal action in federal court in Albany and were awaiting a hearing on the case. One-day furloughs each week for about 100,000 workers are to begin next week, but the unions believe they would violate labor contracts, and a potentially lengthy legal fight is expected.
Gov. David Paterson would continue furloughs until the adoption of a 2010-11 budget, which was due April 1.
The Civil Service Employees Association union wants the court to also stop Paterson and lawmakers from withholding 4 percent contract raises for 68,300 state workers it represents. The raises would be withheld until a budget is adopted.
At a labor rally Monday in Albany, CSEA President Danny Donohue declined to say a 10-foot-tall inflated rat represented Paterson because "that's an insult to a rodent."
Paterson chief of staff Lawrence Schwartz said Tuesday that Donohue can say things he regrets as "immature and irresponsible and inappropriate."
"I think he's supposed to be a leader, he should act like a leader and take a more responsible, more mature tone, which he could do to get his message across that he disagrees with the governor," Schwartz said when questioned by reporters.
U.S. District Judge Lawrence Kahn is reviewing the union filings against Paterson and the Legislature, which authorized furloughs Monday night. Replies from Paterson and the Legislature are expected later this week.
If the furloughs happen, "there is going to be 20 percent less state services," said Darcy Wells, spokeswoman for the Public Employees Federation union.
That would likely include long lines at the state Department of Motor Vehicles and possible delays in inspections of bridges and food and other tasks that a worker would have one less day each week to complete. Staffs at health care facilities will be stretched, and the filing of legal documents and emergency construction projects could be delayed.
United University Professions, the union of the State University of New York, also sued. "We should not be forced to bear the burden of the state's fiscal problems nor be treated as the scapegoat," said UUP President Phillip H. Smith.
Paterson, however, said there would be no threat to public health or safety as only "nonessential" workers will be furloughed for one day a week.
Paterson said if a budget is agreed to soon, unions will see a fraction of 1 percent loss in salary. That's in a year when they're getting a 4-percent raise with no layoffs planned, and after they refused to agree to less severe measures.
"We're asking everybody for their fair share of sacrifice in a recession," Paterson said. "They left us with absolutely no choice. ... I have never seen any organized labor group protest so much over so little sacrifice."
The independent Citizens Budget Commission said the furlough "savings are urgently needed and labor is one of the right areas of the budget in which to seek them." It said the work force is too big to afford, and a pay freeze is needed.
"Labor representatives must begin to be partners in the solution rather than courtroom adversaries," said Carol Kellermann, the commission's president. "There are alternatives to forced furloughs that have the benefit of providing significant savings for more than one year."
She said Albany has for too long made promises to unions and other special interests that its taxpayers can't afford. Unions representing public workers are among the highest spending lobbies and campaign contributors in Albany.
The restraining orders are the first step in the court challenges. Many lawmakers who reluctantly authorized the furloughs said in floor speeches that the unions will likely win in court.
New York is one of a dozen states, including California, that have resorted to furloughs and faced lawsuits. In some cases, courts overturned them and required states to repay workers for the lost time. But the terms of furloughs and labor agreements differ state-to-state.
Furloughs would mean a 20 percent pay cut, likely until a budget is negotiated by the governor and Legislature. The average state worker is paid $64,164 in the work force of nearly 300,000. About 23,000 make more than $100,000. Paterson said furloughs will save $30 million a week.