Monday, October 17, 2011

Labor, Brass Balls and Fred

On Labor Relations

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…

Well, it wasn’t that long ago, nor that far away. It was the 1990s, and I was the city manager in Troy, N.Y. I was dealing with some daunting budget problems that required me to seek concessions from union representatives including reductions in salary increases negotiated by the previous administration in return for political support.

I was as honest about the financial situation as I could be. I told my negotiating partners that the city did not have the resources to pay the raises. I told them that we’d made significant cuts all across the board and that it was only fair that the unions share in the sacrifice by foregoing their “bargained” for pay raises.

The reply to my earnest appeal was silence. The union reps would not acknowledge the situation or move off their original position. They just sat there. Until we published the layoff list. Then I got the call from Senator Bruno’s office, please meet again with the union reps they want to make a deal. So I did big media story that the union was coming in to negotiate to avoid the layoffs. And in they came followed by the press. But it was more of the same old same old. I got so frustrated, I walked out of the meeting and picked up one of the decorative plants in the office. It was some kind of palm tree in heavy container. I lugged in into the lobby where reporters were waiting and said to the news crews: “It makes more sense for me to talk to this plant than the union reps.”

The next day the headline in the Troy Record was: “Grandeau Calls Union Reps Potted Plants.”

I relate this true story as a way of sympathizing with Governor Cuomo as he attempts to resolve the latest tweaked contract with PEF and bring it to a vote. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t mean to insult union leaders. What I mean to convey is the stunningly uncomplicated, but nevertheless vexing position of the executive.

In this regard, you’d love to make people happy, but you simply cannot. You have to say no. It’s got absolutely nothing to do with politics or ideology – it’s about numbers. Your job is to balance the budget.

The union officials’ job is to get the best deal possible for members. That’s fine, but what bothered me then and bothers me now is a seeming disconnect with the fiscal facts.

Troy was really struggling at the time. I had no secret reserve of funds to pay for a salary increase. And neither does Cuomo now. The state and national economy continue to sputter and he simply cannot do more for state workers.

He may seem like Darth Vader to union members, but it’s the part he has play. And if I remember my Star Wars, doesn’t Vader turn out to be a good guy in the end?

Let’s see who wins the vote this time, the employees slated to lose their jobs or the potted plants.

Occupy This

Wall Street is the quintessential New York institution. That well-endowed bronze bull on Bowling Green says it all. It’s not just a symbol for the markets, but New Yorkers, too.

We’ve always been proud of Wall Street. Until now, apparently.

The demonstrations in lower Manhattan appear to have caused a lot of New Yorkers to question their great institution. It certainly has left our leaders speechless. In this regard, I keep looking for someone to say something meaningful about these protests, but I haven’t heard a thing. This is especially true of New York’s political and corporate elite. Where’s Chuck Schumer? Where’s Andrew Cuomo? For that matter, where’s Ken Langone, Hank Greenberg and all the other champions of Wall Street?

Now I’m no economist. I’m no social scientist. I have no illusions about having it all figured out. I know that Wall Street has had its excess and ethical problems. At the same time, I think the critique being offered by protesters is a little too pat. According to the protesters, Wall Street caused the recession. Wall Street blackmailed the government for bailout money. Wall Street profited obscenely. Wall Street is screwing us, again and again.

This might be a plot summary for the next Oliver Stone movie, but it’s not the full picture of world economic problems.

On this matter, I come back to something I know from ethics law enforcement. There are times when people accused of ethical transgressions will simply freeze. This posture inevitably gets read by the public as guilt, but it is not necessarily so. In these situations people need to stand up and say that sweeping criticism isn’t accurate or fair. When they do this, they have to have conviction, even some righteous indignation.
I walked by the protest last week when I was in the city handling audits for some of my clients. A women in the crowd noticed me and yelled “love your tie, quit your job”. Without much thought I responded “if I quit my job I couldn’t afford this tie”.
And in this regard, I have to wonder where are the tough, ballsy New Yorkers who run Wall Street, and why aren’t they defending themselves and the system?

Get it the Game, Gov

There’s a great journalist in Albany named Fred. He’s tough and smart. He has more institutional memory than anyone. And he’s a heck of a writer.

Yes, he can be a little quirky at times. He’s big on burn barrels and the rod and gun thing. And he’s way opinionated.

Of course, I’m talking about Fred LeBrun, the Albany Times Union columnist, who is one of the few people in the New York media who seems willing to provide some critical oversight of the powerful Governor of our state.

Fred wrote a column this weekend about something I’ve been pressing for some time – the fact that there isn’t a functioning ethics panel in New York, and there hasn’t been one for months. (Some say years.) The article quotes me expressing concern about the situation and refers to me as a “persistant cuss.” (I resemble that remark, although I always preferred being termed an equal opportunity prick)

As regular readers know, this is a matter that really, really bothers me. How this situation is tolerated, I’ll never know. Just think about it: If David Paterson or Eliot Spitzer or George Pataki eliminated the state ethics panel and then dithered in setting up a replacement, there’d be absolute outrage. But under Andrew Cuomo, it’s all ok. Not a peep from Susan Learner and the goo goo dolls. One meeting with Steve Cohen and the good government crowd turns moot? Trust me that weak attempt in the new statute to make you disclose your source of funding will never fly.

What is wrong with this picture? Why is this happening? Why isn’t there an articulate critic of the governor on any topic? More importantly, is this situation good for the state? Is this the way it is supposed to be?

I don’t have the answers to all of those questions, but I can answer the last one. A thousand times no. It’s not good when there’s no loyal opposition. Good leaders (and despite my concerns about Andrew Cuomo, I still think he’s been a good leader, maybe the best in a generation) need fair and constructive critics.

I think about this point a lot. I draw a parallel to youth baseball. When a young player who is afraid to swing strikes out, should you say: “Good job. You watched three strikes get called without swinging the bat, but you looked good standing there.”

No. That’s not what you should do at all. You tell the kid that he needs to be more assertive, that he needs to give it his all when he’s playing ball or doing anything else in life. You say, "Come on. Swing the bat"

But right now, Governor Cuomo is a very tentative hitter in the batter’s box of ethics enforcement. He’s standing there, but he’s not swinging the bat. He needs to listen to Coach Grandeau and Coach LeBrun and get in the box and take a rip at it. The worst thing that can happen already has (I’m pretty sure the Public Integrity Commission’s batting average is below the Mendoza line or in integrity speak the Teitelbaum, Ginsburg, Feerick, Cherkasky line.)

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