The Chief
August 3, 2001

Coalition Deal Plays It Safe

By RICHARD STEIER

Kevin Gallagher stared straight ahead, his face betraying no emotion, as Norman Seabrook touted the benefits of the tentative Uniformed Forces Coalition contract in the City Hall Blue Room July 27.

Someone asked Mr. Seabrook, the president of the Correction Officers' Benevolent Association and the coalition's chair, if he was concerned that the one uniformed union that is not part of the group, the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, might be able to improve upon the deal it reached.

Mr. Seabrook responded that the coalition was determined not to be "held hostage" by the PBA, which he noted has asked for a 39-percent pay raise, or 29 points more than the other unions had just accepted. "I really don't know if an arbitrator is going to bankrupt the City of New York," the COBA leader said.

Wary of 'Giveback' Deal

Then Mr. Gallagher was asked about his concerns in that area, and the head of the Uniformed Firefighters' Association said of the PBA, "They may reach some sort of improvement in benefits, but I think it's going to come through attrition bargaining or through some other situation where they have givebacks."

What he didn't add was that if the UFA had waited and that giveback scenario materialized, Firefighters would have more than likely had to make more givebacks than Police Officers to get the same wage and fringe benefit increases. That much was clear from past bargaining history involving the PBA and the other uniformed unions.

Mr. Seabrook and, somewhat surprisingly, Mayor Giuliani, both touted the deal as a slight improvement over the terms reached in April with District Council 37, with the Mayor saying of the affected uniformed employees, "Each one of them has made extraordinary contributions. They deserve to get just a little more recognition."

But a careful analysis of the deal, which provides two 5-percent wage increases compared to a pair of 4-percent raises under the DC 37 contract, raises questions about how superior it really is.

The DC 37 deal runs for 27 months; the uniformed agreement would last for 30 if ratified by the member unions. The longer duration of the uniformed pact reduces its average annual raise value of 3.56 for DC 37 and other civilian unions that took the same terms. That .44-percent advantage on raises doesn't look nearly as appetizing as the on-the-surface 1-point a year difference.

But uniformed union officials indicated enough canvassing had been done of their members to convince them the terms were acceptable to their rank and files, with one or two possible exceptions. Whenever labor leaders like Mr. Seabrook and Mr. Gallagher are emphasizing the lack of givebacks in a deal, it is because the wage gains aren't enormous enough to stand on their own.

But the uniformed deal puts money on the table right away for the 50,000 employees the coalition represents, rather than forcing them to wait on a PBA arbitration case coming to fruition. Mr. Seabrook views the PBA demands as pie in the sky; Mr. Gallagher, with an eye to the past, regards them as potential pie in the face.

Mr. Seabrook compared Mr. Giuliani to "Eddie Koch, who gave us a little more," referring to the former Mayor's penchant for giving uniformed employees slightly more than their civilian counterparts throughout his 12 years in office.

PBA Deal Burned Others

Mr. Gallagher, as well as some other veteran uniformed union leaders, had particular cause to remember Mr. Koch's last round of contract bargaining, when he made a deal that greatly benefited the PBA while putting the rest of them at a severe disadvantage. Mr. Koch's negotiator on that contract was Bob Linn, who currently is preparing the arbitration case on the PBA's behalf. And the likelihood that Mr. Linn would tailor his case to reward Police Officers at their expense, just as he had acceded to doing when he was on the other side of the bargaining table 13 years ago, became a powerful incentive for many uniformed union leaders to make a deal now, even if some wondered whether something better might be available.

Correction Captains' Association President Pete Meringolo said that in addition to negotiating a PBA deal that cost many other uniformed union leaders their jobs because of the givebacks they had to swallow to match its financial gains, Mr. Linn had forced superior officers in the Correction Department to pay a far greater portion of their salary than line officers to secure a 20-year pension benefit.

The rationale behind Mr. Linn's position back then - which also applied in the contract bargaining - was that it was more costly to provide benefits based on seniority to more stable work forces, whether firefighters or police superior officers. Correction Officers were less likely than their supervisors to stick around long enough to qualify for pensions; therefore Mr. Linn demanded that Captains and Deputy Wardens pay a larger percentage of their salaries to win a 20-year retirement benefit.

'He Destroyed My Rank'

"My memories of Bob Linn is he destroyed my rank," Mr. Meringolo said last week. And so, having made a deal without awaiting the outcome of the PBA arbitration, he continued, "I'm not worried about attrition bargaining, I'm not worried about anybody selling me out."

Labor Relations Commissioner Jim Hanley understood those concerns very well, having dealt with many of the same uniformed leaders at the time of Mr. Linn's deals and in their aftermath. In early July, according to uniformed coalition officials, he offered them an option: a 24-month contract with raises of 5 and 4 percent, or a 30-month deal that boosted the second increase to 5 percent.

The unions wanted to get the second-year hike to 4½ percent, figuring they could then agree to a three-month extension that would bring it up to a full 5 percent, with some money left over for fringe benefits.

The Giuliani administration balked at going that extra half-point, however. It eventually raised its end of the deal by about a quarter of a point pegged to a 30-month contract, and when the coalition finally signed off on the deal after an all-day bargaining session July 26, it did so without much jubilation.

"A lot of guys thought we fought the good fight, there wasn't more to be gotten," said one of those involved. He noted that the terms of the first two years of the deal were superior to those won by Transport Workers Union Local 100 for the same period, which had been seen as a benchmark until DC 37 settled.

Not Banking On PERB

There were also doubts, he said, that the Public Employment Relations Board, which will handle the PBA arbitration, will give the union anything close to what it is hoping for. The chances of a groundbreaking deal, he added, diminish even further if the UFA is already under contract, given the 103-year link between salaries for Police Officers and Firefighters.

"I think 5 and 5 for 24 months is the highest PERB would go," this official said. If that surmise is correct, other uniformed union leaders are unlikely to second-guess themselves for reaching a deal that has some certainty rather than tying their fortunes to the PBA and potentially delaying contract settlements for another year.

Mr. Linn attempted to put the best possible face on the uniformed deal, even if logic suggests that its ratification will sharply hinder his efforts to win a breakout contract for the PBA.

"It's a reasonable settlement for supervisors who do not have a retention problem and are relatively well-paid in comparison to the police, and for other city workers who are highly paid in comparison to market salaries and don't have a retention problem," he said.

Until now, Mr. Linn and PBA President Pat Lynch have pursued a public relations strategy that is a significant departure from prior union administrations that deplored the loss of ground to departments in Nassau and Suffolk counties that paid veteran cops significantly higher wages. The PBA this time has focused on how far behind Police Officers salaries are compared to those paid in Newark, a city that hardly conjures thoughts of a rich tax base from which to fund cops' compensation.

Logic Not the Key

From a common-sense standpoint, that comparison remains a compelling one. Arbitrators, however, tend to be guided by longtime salary relationships and existing bargaining patterns, and so it is entirely possible that the wages paid to a New York City Firefighter will hold far greater sway for them than what is earned by a Newark Police Officer.

Mr. Linn contended, however, that rather than lock the PBA into a uniformed bargaining pattern, last week's deal make the case that each union should be compensated based on its individual needs. He noted the differences between this deal and the one reached by DC 37, then pointed out that some of the Librarians represented by DC 37 had gotten an additional 8 percent raise above their basic hikes under a separate agreement meant to address recruitment and retention problems.

 "They definitely demonstrated they're willing to tailor their agreements to the specific needs of the workers, they're dealing with," Mr. Linn said of the Giuliani administration.

Mr. Giuliani seemed to be humming the same tune at the press conference announcing the coalition settlement. "Obviously there's a limit to what the city can afford," he said, but then added, "There are a lot of creative ways to try to satisfy the needs of members."

Those words might sound like an overture to making a PBA deal at the bargaining table that leaves everybody happy, but don't count on it. The overwhelming DC 37 contract ratification vote suggested the city had been a bit more generous than it would have needed to be to get a contract deal, and the uniformed forces agreement goes a tad beyond that.

Bait for the Big Fish

Unless you believe Mr. Giuliani has mellowed toward labor as his mayoralty winds down, the one reasonable conclusion to be drawn about this most cagey of negotiators is that he was willing to spend a little more now to undercut the more ambitious contract goals of both the PBA and the United Federation of Teachers, either stifling them in arbitration or forcing them to settle for lesser terms in bargaining.

The deals this Mayor was readily willing to make are now all in place. The field has been cleared for the bigger battles, the ones where real questions remain as to whether compromises can be struck before Mr. Giuliani leaves office.

Late last year, Mr. Seabrook was quoted by the New York Times as saying that two 5-percent raises would constitute a "good, realistic settlement." He disowned the quote as soon as it raised hackles among fellow coalition members who believed he undermined their bargaining position.

Last week, the coalition, with a couple of notable dissenters, signed off on Mr. Seabrook's original assessment, notwithstanding the fact that it needed some gaudy wrapping to disguise the fact that it's not a true 5-percent-a-year deal. Ultimately, the labor leaders involved concluded it was safer to cut a decent, basic deal now than to hope for the moon and wind up seeing stars.