On Dec. 16 Mario Cilento was elected president of the state AFL-CIO. A member of the Newspaper Guild-CWA since 1990, he has been with the AFL-CIO for nearly 20 years. As chief of staff for the last 12 years, he coordinated political, legislative, communications and grassroots strategies for the organization. NYSUT United's Betsy Sandberg recently spoke with him about the challenges ahead for organized labor in New York.
NU: What is the main challenge facing labor?
Cilento: The obvious answer is jobs. Our state's unemployment has hovered over 8 and even close to 10 percent for several years. Our goal is to get those without jobs back to work and to keep the jobs we do have. At the same time, we must constantly remind everyone that all workers deserve a decent living for their hard and honest labor. That's the main challenge facing labor. There's a bigger challenge facing our society we in labor must address.
NU: What is that?
Cilento: The growing disparity between the haves and the have-nots. Not only is it economically unsustainable, but it tears at the fabric of our society. The more that happens, the more insecure our society could become, which then lessens the support for workers who are unemployed, disabled, or attending to their families. All the unions in the state AFL-CIO are concerned about this climate where state and local budgets are being slashed and our citizens are losing services when they need them most.
NU: What about some positives?
Cilento: In December lawmakers approved the temporary new income tax brackets. Those new brackets took steps toward a more progressive tax system although they are slated to expire at the end of 2014. But it's not enough.
NU: Why not?
Cilento: We need a more progressive tax system, not just a temporary fix. Our citizens deserve a system that provides much-needed revenue, ensures fairness, and protects vital services upon which working people rely.
We must also close corporate tax loopholes that allow profitable corporations to avoid paying the taxes they owe. This will provide reoccurring revenue to support, for example, investments in the state and city university systems so all New Yorkers can attain the skills and training necessary to compete in the global economy.
It is vital that our state supports sufficient health care funding to protect hospitals, nursing homes, and home health care and just as vital that local governments are supported. There are so many public services and infrastructure investments provided through counties and local governments. Those local governments are really feeling the impact of the property tax cap. We strongly believe there should be reform of this cap to mitigate the impact and maintain staffing and services.
NU: What do you think of the proposal for creating a new Tier 6 pension which reduces benefits and provides for a 401(k) option?
Cilento: We disagree with the contention that the current defined benefit pension is unsustainable. What is unsustainable is a society where each generation of middle class workers retires with less financial security than the one before.
Far too many workers have learned the hard way that a 401(k) is not the answer to long term economic security. After 20-30 years of work, the retirement security of nurses, teachers, firefighters, and others, should not be imperiled by the fluctuations of Wall Street. We must keep in mind that Tier 6 will not create one job; it will simply hinder progress on our shared goal of turning the economy around.
NU: This is an ambitious agenda. Can you share any specifics?
Cilento: It's got to be a statewide movement. From Buffalo to Montauk and everywhere in between we will create a groundswell of activism among our 2.5 million members. We will use traditional methods, going through our locals, but also look to our website — www.nysaflcio.org — and Facebook — www.facebook.com/pages/New-York-State-AFL-CIO — for action items.