Court Issues Order Against New York State Furlough Plan

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A federal court in Albany has granted unions a restraining order against New York Gov. David Paterson, blocking him and the Legislature from forcing more than 100,000 state employees to take one-day-per-week furloughs, which had been set to begin next week—at the height of one of the heaviest work weeks of the academic year.

The United University Professions, which represents 35,000 faculty and professional staff on State University of New York campuses, and the Professional Staff Congress, representing 22,000 faculty and academic staff in the City University of New York system, moved swiftly to court on May 11, a day after the Legislature approved Gov. Paterson's emergency measure including the furloughs. The New York State United Teachers affiliates maintain in their lawsuits that the furloughs are illegal, violating the U.S. Constitution's prohibition against states passing legislation that impairs contract obligations, according to a NYSUT press release. They sought the restraining order while the court considers the suit.

In addition, because management confidential employees and private contractors are exempt from the furloughs, the unions charge that employees are being treated unequally. UUP is taking other legal action as well, including filing an improper practice charge with the state Public Employment Relations Board. It argues that the furloughs violate the Taylor Law, which requires that the state negotiate terms and conditions of employment. UUP is also filing a grievance against CUNY.

Paterson announced the furloughs last week, as state officials failed to reach agreement on a budget to close a $9 billion deficit. He said the public employees' "sacrifice is only necessary because their union leadership has rejected all other reasonable attempts at compromise."

"The governor's statement is patently untrue," says Barbara Bowen, PSC president and an AFT vice president. "We have never been contacted by the governor's office, CUNY management or anyone else to discuss alternatives to furloughs, and have never been asked to reopen our contract."

"The state does not have the authority to walk away from the contract and throw SUNY into turmoil," says UUP president and AFT vice president Phillip H. Smith, especially "at a time when faculty are giving final exams and grading papers."

At the same time the suits were being filed, PSC and UUP members turned out in the hundreds to angrily protest in the streets. They were joined by hundreds of New York State Public Employees Federation members at numerous sites around the state. PEF is also preparing to take legal action against the furloughs.

"This order at least temporarily spares our members across the state from having their salaries slashed by 20 percent, and stops the governor from inserting the furlough proposal in future emergency spending bills," says Smith.

"This restraining order affirms our contention that the furloughs are unconstitutional, and we are confident we will also win the lawsuit."

May 13, 2010