The Chief

October 20, 2000

 

PBA's Unlikely Gunslinger

By Richard Steier

It would be hard enough to make a case that cops in Nassau or Suffolk county deserve to be paid 70 percent better than their counterparts in New York City, Bob Linn remarked.

Speak all you want about differing tax bases and ability to pay - the traditional arguments for why it's unfair to use the suburban police departments as a benchmark for what NYPD cops should receive - he said, "I don't believe the relative tax bases could justify paying a 70 percent premium in Nassau and Suffolk."

And how, he asked, can the city hold police compensation below that for officers not only in Chicago and Los Angeles, but in Jersey City and Newark, both of which possess some of New York City's grit but little of its glamour?

Newark, Newark, a Wonderful Town

A comparison between cops here and those in Newark that considers salary and pay differentials against hours actually worked, Mr. Linn said, shows that once the shorter work schedules of the cops on the Jersey side are factored in, city cops are getting 27 percent less in hourly compensation.

"Once you look at all of the relevant data," Mr. Linn argued, "the conclusion has to be that the compensation system for New York City officers is woefully inadequate."

He is speaking as an advocate, one who was retained last month by the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association to help make its case for a contract that goes beyond any basic pattern that may be established for other municipal workers.

Within the tight little world of city labor negotiating, Mr. Linn's retainer by the PBA is about as eyebrow-raising as, say, the Mets acquiring Roger Clemens as a batterymate for Mike Piazza.

PBA President Pat Lynch acknowledged as much when he introduced Mr. Linn to union delegates recently by saying, "He may be [an unprintable], but now he's our [unprintable]."

The last time he was involved in PBA contract talks, in 1988, Mr. Linn was Mayor Koch's chief negotiator. He worked out a deal that, while it was unusually generous to incumbent cops, forced new cops to wait five years rather than the traditional three to reach maximum salary, and required the PBA to trade in its Variable Supplements Fund. That trade-in, which eventually led to similar deals by the other police and fire unions, has since enriched the city treasury by more than $4 billion while taking a similar potential payout from the pockets of their members, a consequence of a stock market explosion that Mr. Linn admitted he didn't foresee when he made the deal.

But Mr. Lynch has clearly decided that even if that deal turned out so well for Mr. Linn's then-employer because of fortuitous circumstances, it doesn't hurt to hire people with that kind of luck.

The fact that Mr. Linn, who left city government at the end of the Koch administration 11 years ago, only recently began attracting interest from city labor leaders (he and his partner, Howard Green, also helped negotiate a contract for the Council of Supervisors and Administrators late last year), bears some explaining.

In a labor negotiating world in which macho posturing often bumps up against the need for eventual conciliation, Mr. Linn to provoke the mix of grudging admiration and loathing normally associated with gunslingers in the old Hollywood westerns.

From 'Cool Hand' to Wiseacre

For the last half of Ed Koch's 12 years as Mayor, Mr. Linn was his chief negotiator. His predecessor, Bruce McIver, looked the part of a tough guy, and had come to the job after growing up on a cattle ranch in Montana and later teaching city cops how to resolve potentially violent domestic disputes.

Mr. Linn, the studious-looking son of a psychiatrist, offered a striking contrast in style that might have led some union leaders to believe he could be bullied, and Mr. Koch, who referred to Mr. McIver as "Cool Hand Luke," initially was less deferential to his replacement.

But Mr. Linn proved to be at least as tough a negotiator, and his sometimes smart-alecky style only added to the friction with some city labor leaders. He also relied extensively on the counsel of Mr. Green, then a deputy in Mr. Koch's Office of Management and Budget, who was viewed by more than a few union officials as having too many opinions and sharing them much too freely.

Mr. Linn's enduring lack of popularity among some veteran labor leaders, however, owes more to the substance of that 1988 PBA contract, which saved the city literally billions of dollars and cost several union officials their jobs.

That deal resulted in the first two-tiered wage scale for cops and the trade-in of the PBA's VSF for a defined benefit payment that could be funded by normal pension earnings without forcing the city to share the windfall profits it has realized the past five years. In return, incumbent PBA members got raises worth about a point more each year than their civilian counterparts and an increase of up to $3,400 in longevity differentials.

City Saved on 'Stretch'

One key facet of the deal was that the cost of the new benefits to the city was more than offset by the savings, because of a relatively high rate of attrition, from stretching out from three years to five the progression by which new officers moved to maximum salary.

Other uniformed unions had less frequent turnover among their rank and files, which made the same benefits more costly to the city, since more of their members stuck around long enough to receive the maximum longevity pay and there were relatively fewer employees coming under the stretched-out salary progression. As a result, Mr. Linn told the leaders of those unions that if they wanted to match the PBA's benefit gains, they had to make additional concessions so that the city's costs were equalized.

The givebacks several union leaders were forced to make cost them their jobs, and others who survived discovered that what came to be known as attrition-based bargaining laced them continually in the position of being at a disadvantage because they represented more stable work forces than entry-level cops.

Bad Will Did Him In

And the lingering animosity they felt toward Mr. Linn for putting them in that position was such that when Mr. Koch was succeeded by David Dinkins in 1990, Mr. Linn's hopes of remaining as the city's chief negotiator were effectively dashed by the amount of bad will that existed towards him among the municipal unions.

Mr. Linn himself now concedes that the attrition-based bargaining he and Mr. Green championed more than a decade ago, despite its considerable dividends to the city over the years, is not a sound long-term strategy if labor peace and a stable work force are desirable goals.

After Mr. Lynch was elected PBA president 17 months ago, he and his board seriously considered retaining Mr. Linn and Mr. Green as the union's bargaining counsel, but ultimately hired Vincent Pitts, a labor attorney whose father, Vito, was the longtime president of the Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union.

In now asking Mr. Linn to produce the same kind of contract coup for the PBA that he once engineered by exploiting the union's short-term self-interest against both its long-term interests and those of the other uniformed unions, Mr. Lynch is avoiding a prime mistake of ex-PBA President Lou Matarazzo during the union's last contract battle.

Wrong Man for Job?

In 1997, forced into arbitration when city negotiators insisted that he conform to a contract pattern set by District Council 37 that included a two-year wage freeze at the start of a five-year deal, Mr. Matarazzo retained veteran labor attorney Chuck Moerdler to make the PBA's case.

Mr. Moerdler had previous experience in a major arbitration on behalf of a large union that could rightfully claim its members needed a pay hike outside the citywide pattern to avoid falling further behind neighboring suburbs: in 1985 his firm represented the United Federation of Teachers in a last-offer binding arbitration process.

Teachers wound up getting a significant pay increase that year, but the arbitrators rejected Mr. Moerdler's proposal in favor of a less-expensive one crafted for the Koch administration by Mr. Linn.

The PBA's decision to choose the man wearing the scars of a big arbitration battle rather than the one who inflicted them did not pay off. The 1997 arbitration panel ruled in favor of the city following a presentation for the Giuliani administration by its chief negotiator, Jim Hanley, who served as Mr. Linn's first deputy under Mr. Koch.

No Love Lost

Somewhere during their working relationship, a coolness developed between Mr. Linn and Mr. Hanley. It's not certain whether Mr. Linn's personality rubbed his then-deputy the wrong way, or whether the aggravation inherent in dealing with uniformed union leaders still outraged at having been sandbagged by Mr. Linn (with a willing assist from then-PBA President Phil Caruso) wore on Mr. Hanley.

But when Mr. Lynch decided nearly a year ago to retain Mr. Pitta rather than Mr. Linn to do his bargaining, it was assumed by some people that he had concluded that it might be easier to strike a quick agreement that would satisfy his members if his lead negotiator did not carry any past baggage.

And Mr. Linn, along with his history with Mr. Hanley, had also had the temerity to question Mr. Giuliani's negotiating success after the Mayor's former chief negotiator, Randy Levine, derided the Koch administration for being too generous to labor.

PBA officials have sidestepped questions about why Mr. Linn has been brought into the talks even as Mr. Pitta remains at the bargaining table. (A spokesman for Mr. Lynch, Vito Turso, when asked whether Mr. Linn would be the one making the union's case at the bargaining table, responded cautiously, "Probably he'll be one of the people on the front lines.")

Good Will Ends Here

A reasonable surmise may be that Mr. Lynch has learned, as did Mr. Caruso after expecting that the PBA's support of Mr. Giuliani in the 1993 mayoral race would pay dividends, that there is a limit to what good will buys from this administration at the bargaining table.

There are three employee groups which seem uniquely well-positioned in this bargaining round to make the case for special treatment based on recruitment and retention problems: police, teachers and librarians. But Mr. Giuliani has already shot down an attempt by the New York Public Library to give its library staff raises of 15 percent beyond any settlement reached with their parent union, District Council 37. The Mayor is also demanding that the United Federation of Teachers accept longer hours and a merit pay system before he'll open the vault.

Mr. Linn, laying out a case that may ultimately be easier to sell to an arbitration panel than to editorial boards or fiscal watchdogs, argued that when compensation for city cops can't compete with that paid in Jersey City or "to Port Authority Police, who work side by side" with them, it's time for a "market adjustment."

"The same way that task forces are asked to come in and look at mayors' or commissioners' salaries, if a task force looking at salaries for New York City police officers was convened it would conclude that the city doesn't reward police officers fairly in relation to their job or to the market," Mr. Linn said.

Bound By the Mold

Union leaders have complained that when they have taken their cases to arbitration, arbitrators have bought the arguments of city negotiators - specifically, Mr. Linn and Mr. Hanley - that it was essential to hold to already-established patterns in that round of contract talks or risk a chaotic future situation in which no labor leader would want to make the first wage deal for fear that someone who followed would trump him.

But Mr. Linn, whose management clients have included the League of Voluntary Hospitals, Columbia University and the Baltimore Fire Department, pointed out that until the Dinkins administration, it was common to have some deviation from established contract patterns.

Mr. Koch and John Lindsay, he noted, both granted slightly larger wage increases to uniformed employees than to civilian ones. Mr. Koch argued that the life-and-death nature of their jobs entitled uniformed employees to the extra money; his popularity among those unions and the political opposition to him by some key civilian union leaders were undoubtedly factors as well.

Other Deviations

And, Mr. Linn pointed out, the city under Mr. Koch exceeded even its uniformed pattern in one bargaining round to address an alarming shortage of nurses in municipal hospitals, and twice gave teachers more than the civilian pattern, although the extra money came from a state program.

Doing more for cops would pose a double-edged dilemma for Mr. Giuliani: either discontinue longstanding pay relationships that have existed between police and other uniformed employees, or have the city's labor costs driven up substantially to keep all those unions happy. But that's not Mr. Linn's concern. "I think because of the difficulty hiring and recruiting, the city is going to have no choice but to address the compensation of police officers," he said.