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Stalled Contract Talks: City Unions Face Hostile Bargaining Climate
Across New York City, public-sector workers are laboring under expired contracts. But municipal unions have concluded that seeking a quick agreement would result in a bad deal, and that patience will yield better results for their members.
Labor negotiations in New York City have moved slowly since the 2008 economic collapse, which sharply reduced tax revenues. While City Hall pushed aggressively to cut spending, unions have resisted succumbing to concession demands during a downturn, which they fear would hobble future bargaining in a time of economic recovery.
City unions are intent on avoiding the fate of the two largest state worker unions, the Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA) and the Public Employees Federation (PEF), whose latest contracts include three years with 0% wage increases. Municipal unions are holding out for better terms, though most of their contracts expired some time ago.
The United Federation of Teachers (UFT) contract expired in October of 2009, while the contract for District Council 37 of AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) ended in March 2010. Pacts for police officers and firefighters expired in July 2010, and the PSC’s contract with CUNY expired on October 19, of the same year.
Under the Triborough Amendment, terms of the old contract remain in place until a new agreement is reached. This means that the grievance procedure and other union rights are still in force – but salary schedules are also unchanged, so most public workers get no raises until there is a new agreement.
When DC 37, the largest city union, held its first bargaining talks last November, the city reportedly offered three 0% annual raises, followed by two 2% raises in the final years of a five-year agreement. “Our members need a wage increase,” DC 37 Executive Director Lillian Roberts said at the time. “Our members are working harder than ever, and the cost of living is on the rise.”
While city officials said that no money is available for an immediate raise, DC 37 says that different policies could easily provide the money needed for a fair contract settlement. Roberts said that the city “has allowed out-of-control spending on outside private contractors,” such as the scandal-plagued CityTime payroll modernization computer project, and has “increased tax giveaways to corporations by $20 billion.” CityTime’s costs ballooned from $63 million to $780 million; DC 37 researchers say that overall city spending on private contractors increased by 71% between 2003 and 2011.
DC 37 said that austerity was the wrong response to the long-running recession. Instead of “job-killing budget cuts,” said Roberts, the administration “should invest in the city’s workforce, which would [reduce] unemployment and jumpstart our economy.”
After seeing little progress in early negotiations, the UFT said in January 2010 that talks had reached an impasse. It asked New York’s Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) to name a mediator, and a month later PERB did so. But mediator Philip Maier, head of PERB’s regional office in Brooklyn, was unable to bring the two sides together. After seven months, the UFT announced that “mediation [had] failed.”
The next step is “fact-finding,” a process in which each side prepares its best case and presents this information to a three-person panel appointed by PERB, which then issues a nonbinding report. “Those recommendations could serve as a framework for a final contract,” a UFT statement noted this summer. “Recommendations of fact-finding panels have helped the UFT and the Department of Education to reach agreements to replace expired contracts three times – in 1993, 2002 and 2007.”
Usually mediators or fact-finding teams take their lead from patterns established in other municipal labor agreements in the same time frame, and the UFT says that the first two years of the next UFT contract cover a period in which other city unions, like DC 37, received raises at a rate of 4% a year. But, in a break with its longstanding adherence to pattern bargaining, the city has said that it is too broke to include those 4% hikes in any new agreement with the UFT. This spring, Mayor Michael Bloomberg added more fuel to the fire by saying there was “no conceivable way” that the city could include retro pay in any of its new labor contracts.
“To set the record straight, the issue of retroactive pay has been a feature in law and practice in New York City for decades,” responded UFT President Michael Mulgrew. “As recently as fiscal 2008 the city paid more than $200 million in retroactive pay to police officers, and even the UFT’s first two contracts with Mayor Bloomberg included retroactive pay.”
According to The Chief, Mulgrew has indicated the UFT may prefer to wait until after 2013 to conclude a new contract agreement when it expects a more union-friendly administration to be in place.
State unions have also had a tough time in bargaining, dealing with a governor who ran on a get-tough-on-unions campaign. Governor Andrew Cuomo also came to the table with a call for 0% raises, along with a threat of massive state layoffs if state unions would not agree to terms. In the summer of 2011, the CSEA signed an agreement: no raises in the first three years followed by 2% raises in each of the following two years. The PEF signed on to the same terms shortly thereafter. PEF members voted down the proposed agreement the first time around, approving a modified version in response to some small improvements and a first wave of layoff notices. But members of both unions remained angry about the outcome, often saying that they’d been forced to negotiate with a gun held to their heads.
That discontent made itself felt in subsequent union elections. PEF President Ken Brynien lost his re-election bid in June, 2012 to challenger Susan Kent, who said in her campaign that Brynien had been too quick to agree to a settlement. The three years of 0% increases were used against CSEA President Danny Donohue when he unsuccessfully ran for national president of AFSCME (with which CSEA is affiliated). At AFSCME’s June convention in Los Angeles, Donohue’s detractors made two zero signs with their hands when he addressed the floor.
SUNY AND UUP
The contract for United University Professions (UUP) at SUNY expired in July 2011, and the union has held several bargaining sessions since. “Other state bargaining units have taken substantial hits in compensation and health benefits,” said UUP Chief Negotiator Jamie Dangler in February, 2012. “We’ve had our share of bruises along the way, but we will continue to stand and fight.”
In December, 2011 UUP went to court to block a 2% increase in premiums for retiree health coverage. “The state’s action to unilaterally raise the level of contributions retirees pay for their health insurance is unconstitutional, arbitrary and capricious, and amounts to a breach of our contract,” said UUP President Phil Smith.