As we reported last week , legislators and advocates in several states are gearing up to oppose legislation that would roll back long-accepted labor standards and weaken prospects for a meaningful economic recovery. Proponents of those measures are polarizing the political climate by vilifying unions and public sector workers. While, in most of these cases, the subject legislation may never be enacted, there is a danger that under cover of such divisiveness, other major anti-labor initiatives could quietly squeak through by being packaged more moderately.
A case in point is emerging in New York. Last week, a task force appointed by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg issued a set of proposals for changing the civil service codes. A classic case of throwing the baby out with the bath water, the task force’s recommendations would undermine the very principles of anti-corruption and public integrity enshrined in the civil service code – as well as fair dealing with public workers – by presenting them as an attempt to improve the efficiency of the system.
The task force’s proposals hinge on reforming the state’s civil service law to exempt the city government from the state Civil Service Commission and to enable the city to set up its own system. In addition, the remainder of the 23 proposals includes radical changes to long-accepted tenets of civil service law that prevent nepotism and corruption in public hiring and human resource practices. Among them:
enabling managers to discipline employees without recourse to a hearing review in cases of excessive or unjustified discipline
mandating that arbitrators uphold disciplinary actions except in the most extreme cases where the measure taken against an employee was illegal or made in bad faith
exempting whole categories of positions from civil service examinations, in favor of subjective evaluations of skills and proficiencies
eliminating competitive exams that rank candidates’ expertise objectively in favor of so-called “education and experience exams,” in which candidates are scored according to their background
Though many of the proposed reforms are inconsistent with standing union contracts and changes would have to be negotiated, the task force included no labor representatives and did not consult with city employee unions in developing its recommendations. For most of the proposals to be implemented, the state must amend the Civil Service Law to empower the city to establish its own civil service oversight system.
The net effect of the proposals would be to weaken protections against favoritism and political manipulation of public hiring. New York labor unions and good government groups have been quick to denounce the report, both for the substance of its recommendations and the biased and opaque process through which it was produced. Lillian Roberts, Executive Director of AFSCME District Council 37, the city’s largest public employee union, said the proposals are “a blatant attack on the civil service system and the merit and fitness protections that guarantee that workers providing city services are qualified to do the job because of what they know, not who they know.”
Yet the state’s unions are bound to be working hard to stop anti-labor measures on several fronts this year, with new, unallied leadership in the State Senate and Governor Andrew Cuomo promising to take on public employee unions in a high-profile and divisive campaign organized in collaboration with corporate interests . It is not clear if this lower-profile set of proposals will be drowned out, find sympathetic ears open to corrosive policies sung to a sweeter tune, or whether real-politik will determine its fate as part of a multi-issue deal.
Either way, the disingenuous nature of some of the arguments made by Bloomberg’s task force is glaring.
For instance, while the Mayor’s administration has relentlessly promoted the use of standardized testing of students as the prime measure to evaluate school performance , the task force defends its proposal to begin eliminating competitive exams for civil service positions by saying that the “process deprives [prospective employees] of a real opportunity to be considered for a position based on their full range of qualifications.” There is one way in which such measures are consistent: in both cases, the administration has developed policy with an eye toward undermining the rights of city workers and their unions.
Progressives in other states with political leadership that seems set to launch broad and high-profile attacks on the rights and job security of workers in 2011 -- such as Indiana, Maine, Michigan, New Hampshire, Ohio, and Wisconsin -- should keep an eye out for other measures on the local and state levels that may end up sneaking sneak through without as much attention.