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“Up Against a Wall,” University Professionals Sue to Stop Furloughs

May 12, 2010

ALBANY, N. Y. - Unions representing state workers are fighting back against an emergency budget bill passed Monday that would authorize Gov. David Paterson to furlough more than half the state's workforce, leaving them without pay for one day a week until a budget is passed in Albany. State workers' unions, including one representing academic and professional faculty at the State University of New York (SUNY), filed suits Tuesday. The labor groups felt they had little choice, according to United University Professions (UUP) President Phillip Smith.

"We were basically put up against a wall with a knife to our neck. We were never consulted, never given an opportunity to speak to the governor or his staff about the furlough plan before it was enacted."

Paterson took the action saying the unions refused other concessions to save the state money, such as delaying employees' paychecks by several days or giving up a four percent raise. Smith said he reached out to the governor's office, indicating his willingness to discuss these options, but was told Paterson was not interested in negotiating.

The UUP suit claims the plan to idle workers one day a week is unconstitutional because states are prohibited from passing legislation that interferes with contracts. Smith says most state employees, including SUNY workers, don't make as much as people think they do.

"That's a 20 percent cut in pay, per week. Who among us can reasonably afford that? I mean, we all have obligations – mortgages, car payments, child care expenses and you know, even the mere fact of purchasing food."

Smith says one consequence of the furlough plan would impact SUNY campuses which are heading into exams and summer breaks.

"If you furlough a professor who might be giving an exam and grading papers for your son or daughter, who is a senior at a campus, it is conceivable that that child may not get their grades turned in, in time to graduate. That's a shame."

The lawsuit seeks a temporary restraining order to keep the furlough plan from starting as scheduled next week.

Mark Scheerer, Public News Service - NY