The anti-union wave that’s sweeping the Midwest has found a home in Westchester County, where County Executive Rob Astorino and the bipartisan band of legislators that passed his 2013 budget eliminated the job held by Karen Pecora, the outspoken president of the county government’s largest public employee union since 2009.
Astorino’s heavy-handedness came as he pushed his no-tax increase budget, and assailed the Civil Service Employees Association Unit 9200 for failing to provide enough givebacks on health-insurance premiums to halt the layoffs.
Pecora charged that Astorino’s decision to eliminate her job was part of his anti-labor agenda. Astorino and his bipartisan budget-cutters also eliminated the position of Teresa Rella, CSEA Unit 9200’s third vice-president. There were about 90 CSEA layoffs in the budget.
“It’s really a union-busting bullying tactic,” she told Tax Watch. “He’s targeting CSEA officers.”
Pecora, who has served as CSEA Unit 9200 president since 2009, will step down on Dec. 31 when her job gets officially eliminated. First Vice President Kwabna Manu will take over.
Astorino spokeswoman Donna Greene, in a written response, said it was the union’s fault that its leaders lost their jobs. They could have saved their posts if the union had agreed to Astorino’s demands in collective bargaining, Greene wrote.
“For three years, the county executive has been pleading with the CSEA to take him up on his jobs for savings plan,” wrote Greene. “Had the CSEA followed the model of three other unions to have their members contribute a portion of the cost of their health care benefits — just like virtually every other worker today –most if not all of the layoffs could have been avoided. Because the union failed to take the county executive up on his jobs for savings offer, more than 100 layoffs are required to balance the budget.”
Observers say the elimination of a Westchester County labor leader’s position is unprecedented in the county’s rough-and-tumble budget battles.
Ken Margolies, senior associate at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, said that since his entry into the labor-management field in 1986, he has never witnessed a municipal labor leader losing his or her job as a result of an impasse in negotiations.
“It’s a sign of the times, that management is getting bolder, and willing to take more extreme action against unions,” he said. “They think the public will tolerate it.”
He expects the elimination of Pecora’s job will hurt labor-management relations here.
“It obviously personalizes the situation,” he said. “You can’t help but think it was vindictive, and deliberate. There’s no finesse here. It’s a heavy-handed move.”
Greene, though, said Astorino’s decision to push for the elimination of Pecora’s job in the Department of Parks and Recreation came at the behest of Parks Commissioner Kathleen O’Connor.
“The jobs slated for elimination were recommended by commissioners based on their assessments of the staffing needed to run their respective departments,” Greene wrote.
Though Pecora’s job title – secretary 1, word processor – was located within the Department of Parks and Recreation’s budget, she did not work at parks headquarters in Mount Kisco. Under Westchester County labor contracts, union leaders are paid through their job positions, but don’t actually do those jobs because they are allowed to fulltime on union business. CSEA has more than 3,000 workers in Westchester County government.
So it turns out that O’Connor decided that Pecora’s job – which she was authorized not to perform because she was acting as CSEA president – was eliminated because the department was doing fine without Pecora showing up in Mount Kisco.
Parks spokesman Peter Tartaglia did not return a phone message seeking comment.
Pecora said this strategy puts at peril the position of any Westchester County labor leader who is legally doing union business, as authorized by their labor agreements.
Jessica Ladlee, a spokesman for CSEA’s Region 3 office, said the union is evaluating how best to respond to Astorino’s actions.
“We have to take a close look at having an outspoken union leader being targeted for job elimination,” Ladlee said.
At issue in the stalled labor talks were the thorny issues of wages and health benefits. Pecora said the union had agreed to no raises for two years, with four furlough days. She said the union offered to pay a portion of health-insurance premiums, based on a sliding scale, noting that it would be unfair to have employees who earn $35,000 a year paying the same premium as those earning $100,000 a year.
She said the county has insisted that CSEA adopt an across-the-board contribution, as agreed to by three other county unions.
“It might work for the other unions, but not for us because of the huge difference in our salaries,” she said. “We are still of the mindset that we are willing to meet to come to an agreement.”
Photo: CSEA President Karen Pecora.