Gov. David Paterson says he wants to furlough 100,000 non-essential state employees for one week to save taxpayers $150 million.
That begs two questions.
First, why are there 100,000 people on the state payroll whose jobs are considered "non-essential?" (Seriously. Why?) And second, why hasn't this financially depressed state done furloughs before now?
A furlough is a reasonable and common method that companies use to get them through the hard times. Many companies, including this one, have enacted them during the recession over the past two years as a way to save money while retaining employees.
While employees don't like losing a week or two of pay, it's a better alternative to not having a job at all. And while companies don't like to have employees not working for a week or two, it's a far better alternative than losing employees and not having them around when the work picks up again.
A one-week furlough would help the state tremendously. State taxpayers would instantly get $150 million to help balance the budget at a time in which aid to schools and for welfare programs is being slashed. Giving 100,000 "non-essential" state workers an extra week off a year wouldn't affect the operation of government one lick. State workers wouldn't suffer needlessly by giving up 1.9 percent of their annual pay (one week out of 52), especially when such a move allows them to keep their jobs.
In this economy and with the state's financial position, furloughs are a no-brainer. So why hasn't the state done it?
The reason is that the state employee unions have become more powerful than the government or the taxpayers. The unions demand something and the government gives it to them. The government demands something, and the unions say no. That's your answer.
If you tell the unions that the state is going bankrupt, they shrug their broad shoulders and tell you it's not their problem.
If you suggest it might be very helpful if they would give up their pay raise for a year just to help get the state over the hump, they say the contract is binding, a deal is a deal.
If you suggest laying off workers to reduce expenses, they say, "See you in court."
So it's not surprising that the union response to Gov. Paterson's suggestion of a one-week furlough once again involves thrusting the third finger from the thumb in the taxpayers' faces.
"If the governor does furlough state employees, (we) will hold the state accountable," huffed Kenneth Brynien, president of the Public Employees Federation, the state's second-largest union. "We will take every action necessary to stop the governor's proposal."
The difference between public employees and employees in the private sector is that employees in private companies have no choice in the matter. Take the furlough or lose your job. State employees have no such incentive to cooperate. They know the state won't lay them off if they don't take the furloughs ... or pay freezes ... or significant changes in pension benefits.
The unions understand from past history that they can successfully threaten lawmakers and make them think that if they don't play ball, the unions will make sure they don't get re-elected. That's also the reason state unions are able to wrangle such generous pay and benefits packages in the first place.
So while the state cuts aid to schools, the public employee unions keep collecting their raises and benefits, and they don't have to worry about losing their jobs.
It's time for our politicians to grow a set and call their bluff.
Do the furloughs. Do the layoffs. Let them take you to court. Let them try to get candidates to run against you. See if they really have the power they say they do. Let's pick apart their threats and see if they hold water.
Threat 1: The unions will take the state to court.
Let them. This is an emergency. The state is almost bankrupt. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Concessions are commonly made in other cash-strapped states. Why not New York? Let's see how happy the union membership is with its leaders when they spend millions of dollars in dues money on lawsuits to save 1/52 of their pay. The state could save $30 million a day from furloughs. That money will pay for a lot of court time. Go for it.
Threat 2: The union members will vote lawmakers out of office.
Unions are like cobras; they puff themselves up to make themselves look bigger. The fact is that only about a quarter of the state's entire work force is inside the union teepee.
The other 75 percent of workers in the state aren't. It's true, the 25 percent of union members are far more organized than the remaining 75 percent. But union members are far outnumbered by voters who might have other motivations for showing up at the polls - like their tax bills. And union members don't always vote for the candidate the union tells them to. It's not a sure thing.
Threat 3: The union will support challengers.
The re-election rate of New York state lawmakers is about 98 percent. Most legislators are beloved by their constituents, regardless of how unpopular the Legislature as a body is. Most incumbents either run unopposed or face only token opposition every two years. Unions make it seem like they can throw the bums out anytime they snap their fingers. But it's not exactly easy to find and finance viable candidates to beat a reasonably popular incumbent - especially one who can run on the platform that he's standing up for taxpayers.
Gov. Paterson has nothing to lose by challenging the unions. He's out of office Jan. 1 no matter what. And that's why he's able to keep coming up with these proposals. He's not afraid of the unions anymore. Refreshing, isn't it?
But like his other ideas for trimming the state's personnel budget, this one won't go anywhere because our elected officials are too scared of the unions to take decisive action. Lawmakers should think more like the governor and tell the unions that if they're not willing to help the state out of its financial problems, they can accept the consequences.
And if they want a fight, then bring it on.
Local editorials represent the opinion of The Post-Star editorial board, which consists of Publisher Rick Emanuel, Editor Ken Tingley, Editorial Page Editor Mark Mahoney and citizen member Roger Guglielmo.