NEW YORK - "New York is a state filled with remarkable places and remarkable people," says a new television commercial over the images of Niagara Falls and a carpenter hard at work. The announcer then goes on to bemoan the sorry state of local government - and then cheerfully informs viewers that "now we can fix all that" with the new governor, Democrat Andrew Cuomo.
"After all," the ad concludes over an image of the Empire State Building, "this is a state where even the sky's not the limit." The ad even calls on us, rank-and-file New Yorkers, to "join the fight," seemingly grassroots style.
Sounds good - so why are labor and community groups worried?
The TV spot, just unveiled, is not the work of any grassroots or labor organization. In fact, it's quite the opposite. The producer, the "Committee to Save New York," is actually a slick organization founded - at the behest of Cuomo himself - by the state's big Wall Street businesses, and it's main aim is to turn the tide of public sentiment against the labor movement, specifically public sector unions.
The group's critics say the agenda goes even further, to helping the governor balance the budget on the backs of all working people.
The state of New York's budget deficit is around $10 billion, and Cuomo announced that he wants to freeze wages for all state employees for at least a year - this on top of cuts to public services. Yet the top news item on CSNY's website is a link to a N.Y. Post opinion piece entitled "Let the 'millionaires tax' die."
That tax, enacted in 2009 after heavy lobbying by the labor movement, community groups and elected officials, brings the New York state nearly $4 billion yearly. While big business and the rich have wanted this tax to sunset*, working people have not: it adds a small surcharge only on the richest two percent of wage earners.
CSNY represents business, including the biggest of the big: up until just recently, Richard Parsons, the chair of Citigroup, was a member of its board. Labor successfully pushed for his resignation, threatening to run a campaign notifying the public that the committee, which will push to cut public workers' pay, is led by the same people who took billions from the federal government in bailout money.
Rob Speyer, of Tishman Speyer properties, a mega-realty firm in New York City - it controls Rockefeller Center, among other properties - is reported to have donated more than $1 million to the committee. Other multi-million dollar businesses support the group and make up its board of directors, but the amount and source of each contribution is secret. What is public knowledge is that the committee has raised $10 million so far.
Gary LaBarbera, president of the coalition of building trades unions in New York City is also a member of the board. He says that he will not do anything to hamper the interests of public workers. But some in the labor movement fear that Cuomo and business are trying to play up a division between public and private sector workers, while harming both. Even if this is not the case, LaBarbera, if he fights for the interests of working people, is likely to be isolated on the board.
Cuomo, in the run up to the 2010 elections, said that he would fight to weaken labor's roll in state politics.
Still, despite Cuomo's tough talk and cozy relationship with CSNY, he has shown some signs of a willingness to negotiate with labor. For example, Cuomo's panel on healthcare cost reduction includes the current and former presidents of 1199 SEIU, the health workers union.
Making the situation more complex is the Republican Party's strength in the State Senate; they want to go much further than Cuomo in cuts and austerity budgeting.
The coming fiscal year's budget is still up in the air. The ad campaign launched by business - despite the polite tone of the first commercial - is clearly but the opening shot in a long battle between big business and labor.
*A sunset provision is a clause that lets a law be automatically repealed on a specific date, unless legislators reenact the law.