State senators to get a reality check as their own workers unionize


Labor leaders were giddy when a group of state Senate employees last month announced their intent to unionize. But if the group achieves its objective — to subject senators to the sweeping union rules Albany imposes on local governments and schools — the result may be more than what labor bargained for.

About 80 of the Senate’s roughly 1,000 employees have formed the New York State Legislative Workers United. In a letter to Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the group demanded the same bargaining privileges New York’s Taylor Law grants state and municipal employees and teachers.

In other words, the staffers want state regulators to force senators to negotiate with them and bind lawmakers to the contract terms.

The legality of that scheme is, at best, highly questionable. A union would run into constitutional issues if it asked a judge to enforce a labor contract on the Legislature, a separate and independent branch of government. But if the nascent union succeeds in forcing senators to the table, lawmakers will be in for a rude awakening.

That’s because the Taylor Law does far more than make bosses negotiate wages and benefits. The statute has been interpreted to make close to everything in a workplace that isn’t nailed to the floor negotiable. And it essentially bars employers from managing their own workforce without the union’s permission.

After the bill’s 55 years on the books, Taylor Law contracts control, among other things, the length of the school day, prevent state and local managers from firing employees who commit crimes at work and prioritize an employee’s seniority over how well he or she does the job. 

The staffers sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins demanding they have the same bargaining privileges that other state employees have under the Taylor Law.
The staffers sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins demanding they have the same bargaining privileges that other state employees have under the Taylor Law.
AP Photo/Hans Pennink

Even the tiniest reasonable changes to make government more efficient — like eliminating a vacant position, modernizing a performance evaluation form or asking employees to punch a time clock — can require special permission from the union. 

The Taylor Law in many respects is the Empire State’s unseen policy villain, contributing to most of the city’s and state’s top challenges but always escaping scrutiny.

The United Federation of Teachers’ stranglehold over city schools, the rank inefficiency of the New York City subway and Long Island’s crushing property taxes all trace their roots to the Taylor Law. (The maintenance nightmares New York City Housing Authority residents endure and city beaches’ lifeguard-scheduling drama are linked to a similar local collective-bargaining ordinance covering most city workers.)

But state lawmakers ostensibly concerned about student outcomes, the plight of straphangers or Nassau County’s cost of living rarely utter the words at the heart of the issue — “the Taylor Law!” — lest they anger union leaders before the next election. 

And the Taylor Law makes those elections less meaningful because union contracts often determine how government operates more than do the decisions made by the people voters chose. 

Lawmakers can afford to ignore the law’s negative consequences in part because most don’t live directly with them. Nothing, though, would make the flexibility the Senate enjoys evaporate faster than making that body subject to the Taylor Law. The practice in many senators’ offices of having aides wear multiple hats, work odd schedules and travel to and from Albany with their bosses would likely stop being a given. 

The experience might just be disruptive enough to break through Albany’s generations of cognitive dissonance. Losing near-complete discretion over their personal taxpayer-funded fiefdoms could finally prompt senators to recognize how much control they’ve taken away from other elected officials.

Everyone — from progressives frustrated about police accountability and public transit to limited-government conservatives eager to cut taxes — stands to win if lawmakers get an up-close and personal encounter with the law and decide to embrace overdue reforms, like limiting the scope and duration of union contracts.

Applying the Taylor Law, with all its extremes and excesses, to the Senate would be a fine thing for Senate staffers — one their labor brothers and sisters might soon come to regret.

Ken Girardin is a fellow at the Empire Center for Public Policy in Albany.


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