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labor NYSUT Election Signals New Rift

New York State United Teachers ousts incumbent President and elects Karen Magee and her entire slate. Ms Magee is NYSUT's first female President. She had the support of New York City's United Federation of Teachers as well as the Professional Staff Congress. The vote was seen as a repudiation of the incumbents close relationship with Governor Cuomo.

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In New York, Democrats and public sector unions have historically been joined at the hip. But you might not know it from watching recent developments between some of the state's major unions and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the de facto head of the state party.

A few months ago, the president of the Civil Service Employees Association — the largest public workers union — called the governor a "monkey" and a "moron" at a rally.

Then the head of the second largest state union, the Public Employees Federation, said she hopes Cuomo faces a primary challenge when he runs for re-election this fall.

The latest chapter unfolded last weekend, when the membership of the powerful New York State United Teachers voted out the union's president of nine years, Richard Iannuzzi, and installed challenger Karen Magee.

NYSUT delegates were angry over a number of issues, including the spending habits of top union officials, but there was also plenty of anger — as well as some booing and jeering — aimed at the governor.

NYSUT's upset is perhaps more nuanced than that of CSEA and PEF, whose members remain irate that Cuomo forced them into contractual givebacks three years ago under the threat of layoffs.

Teachers are angry over the implementation of the Common Core, the new nationwide learning standards for students, which includes tests that will be used to evaluate teachers. Unlike CSEA and PEF, which represent mostly those on the state payroll, NYSUT comprises employees in hundreds of school districts across the state.

Labor leaders and political observers readily acknowledge the tensions between Cuomo and public sector unions.

"It does not appear from the criticisms heard of the governor at the recent NYSUT convention or in the rough language used by the presidents of PEF and CSEA ... that things are getting any better between Mr. Cuomo and these statewide unions," said Lee Howard Adler, an instructor on labor relations at Cornell University who has ties to the labor movement.

"I would certainly believe that some of the policies that the governor has been a part of creating have angered the unions," said NYSUT's Magee, a teacher from Westchester County — where Cuomo lives — who was fielding questions and interview requests on Monday, her first full day as the union's new president.

NYSUT members have for years complained about the governor's 2011 property tax cap, which has put the squeeze on New York state's high level of education spending. With schools trimming budgets and laying off teachers and making it harder to get raises, the constraint on property tax growth has had a direct impact on the union's finances.

A year ago, the Times Union reported that the union faces a multimillion-dollar deficit.

Cuomo drew more ire from teachers unions in recent weeks by throwing his support behind charter schools, an especially sensitive topic among NYSUT's New York City affiliate/partner, the United Federation of Teachers. Magee's election represents a stronger alignment with UFT.

Despite that, there is at least some indication that Cuomo wants to work with the teachers union on reforms to the Common Core program, which is being implemented by the state Board of Regents, which oversees the Education Department. Regents are elected by the Legislature, not the governor.

It was Cuomo who initially agreed to accept the Common Core standards as part of a U.S. Department of Education initiative that called for a teacher evaluation system in exchange for federal dollars.

Following completion of the 2014-15 state budget last week, the governor suggested a rethinking of how Common Core exams could be used in teacher evaluations. He noted that the budget includes a two-year ban on using Common Core tests results in determining if students should be promoted, or on their transcripts.

For the first time, the governor asked why that delay shouldn't also apply to teacher evaluations.

"That is an issue that we have not addressed, and we need to address before the end of the session," Cuomo said.

Such a delay or commensurate change to the evaluation structure "would be a great start for us," Magee said.

One unanswered question, though, is the extent to which Cuomo thinks he needs public sector labor support this fall.

With a heavy Democratic enrollment advantage, a $33 million campaign war chest and continued strong poll ratings, few observers are predicting Cuomo's defeat in November. And a third-party candidate, perhaps from the left-leaning Working Families Party, would be unlikely to derail the governor.

It could, however, send a message that progressives are unhappy, which if Cuomo ever seeks the presidency could become an obstacle in national primaries.

The governor could point to the support he receives from private sector unions and his progressive moves on issues like gun control or same-sex marriage.

But the ballot box isn't the only place continued anger by public sector unions could hurt Cuomo: There's also the Capitol, where many state lawmakers curry the support of the same labor groups.

Some unions, especially the large and well-financed NYSUT, could pose a headache if they are able to foment opposition among lawmakers or in localities, whose leaders remain upset over the tax cap.

"It could stir up opposition in the state Legislature," suggested Daniel DiSalvo, an assistant professor of political science at the City College of New York.