The Chief
February 14, 2003

Health Co-Pays Among Giveups Sought By City

Unions Resist Lesser Pension Tier, Loss Of Medicare B

By Deidre McFadyen

The Bloomberg administration has launched its opening salvo in a quest for $600 million in concessions from public-employee unions, presenting the Municipal Labor Committee a menu of 21 options, including a three-day cut in annual leave, added worker co-pays for doctor’s visits, and eliminating release time for city workers engaged in labor relations activities.

“There are many options for meeting this target,” Mr. Bloomberg said. “But make no mistake, meet it we must.”

Layoff Threat for 12,000

He has previously said that he could be forced to layoff up to 12,000 city workers if the unions refuse to cooperate.

United Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, the MLC chair, called the appeal for give-backs “a non-starter.” She said that the MLC would try in its response to steer the dialogue toward ideas that would generate savings for the city without taking a bite out of city workers’ pay and benefits.

The unions, she said, will urge the Bloomberg administration to scale back the city’s use of outside contractors, examine redeployment issues, and expand its early retirement incentive offer.

“The Mayor has to be willing to explore these things,” Ms. Weingarten said. “Otherwise, it’s a political strategy, and he’s not seeking a outcome, that both sides can live with.”

Ms. Weingarten said that it was terrible to scare her members – especially the Paraprofessionals, who are typically among the first on the chopping block – with layoff talk. But she said, “If those are the only two choices, many unions will say, “We’ll take the layoffs instead of the concessions.’”

Using sharper language, Communications Workers of America Local 1180 President Arthur Cheliotes called it an “exercise in futility” for the municipal unions to make concessions to fend off potential layoffs. “They will always use that to extort more givebacks from us,” he said.

‘Heed History Lessons’

Uniformed Firefighters’ Association President Stephen J. Cassidy noted that it took the unions 25 years to win back the benefits that they gave up during the fiscal crisis of the 1970s. “All those people who were laid off were rehired into jobs with reduced benefits,” he said. If you reduce benefits now, you’ll never get them back.”

District Council 37 Executive Director Lillian Roberts, whose union has already lost nearly 300 Department of Education workers to layoffs, has been more reluctant to rule out givebacks. “I’m never going to say never,” she said in an interview the previous week. “Unions try to be cooperative in any circumstances that impact on the city and the workers. We’ll sit down and discuss so we can meet the needs of the workers and the citizenry.”

Mr. Bloomberg has invited the MLC steering committee to meet with him. Union officials said that the Mayor wants to update them about the city’s budget woes and personally plead his case. He had to postpone a breakfast meeting set for Feb. 11 at Gracie Mansion because of a scheduling conflict.

The emerging debate over the $600 million figures to throw a wrench in the plans of those unions, such as DC 37 and the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association, which are hoping to reach terms with the city on new contracts in the near future.

Labor Relations Commissioner James F. Hanley hewed to the administration’s hard line in a Feb. 5 bargaining session with DC 37, insisting that the city would not give wage increases to the union’s 125,000 members unless they were funded through productivity. The Mayor has previously ruled out retroactive raises.

At the MLC meeting on Jan. 31, Mr. Hanley proposed eliminating the practice of the city’s paying the salary of employees released from their regular jobs to do union work. That policy, dating back to an executive order issued by Mayor John Lindsay in 1973, provides roughly one city-paid position to each union for every 2,000 civilian employees.

City officials said it made little sense to lay people off at the same time that the city is paying people to perform union activities.

Unions Question Logic

But civilian and uniformed union leaders alike were not buying that argument.

“It appears that they are not only trying to balance the budget on the backs of city employees, but they are attempting to interfere with the ability of city unions to represent their membership,” said Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Patrick J. Lynch.

Mr. Cheliotes, whose union represents 7,500 front-line supervisors, contended that the city’s withdrawal of its support for labor relations activities would backfire. “It puts in place mechanisms that encourage dialogue rather than warning camps and work actions,” he said.

Mr. Cheliotes said that the city’s “release-time” policy mirrored similar ones in the private sector. City officials countered that most private companies grant labor delegates unpaid leave and ask their unions to pay their salaries.

Mr. Cassidy declared that eliminating release time was not a serious proposal. “Every union has a right to have leaders that can function and work for their membership,” he said. “This administration seems to want there to be no strong union leaders.”

Some of Mr. Hanley’s proposals to the unions were outlined in the Mayor’s budget plan. He suggested establishing unpaid holidays, imposing higher premiums and deductibles for city health care plans, and creating a new pension tier for future employees that would provide less generous benefits.

Mr. Hanley floated for the first time the idea of no longer reimbursing city workers over age 65 for the $600 they pay each year in Medicare Part B premiums. Those retirees won full reimbursement last year after a long campaign spearheaded by the DC 37 Retirees’ Association.

The Commissioner also proposed reducing the city’s contribution to union welfare funds by $200 for each active member and by 50 percent for each retiree. The city currently makes a welfare-fund payment of $1,475 for each active city workers and retiree.

Proposals ‘Shameful”

“The Mayor should be ashamed,” said Stuart Leibowitz, president of the DC 37 Retirees” Association, of these two ideas. “It’s our judgment that what the city is trying to do is divide the retired employees and the active employees, but it will not succeed.”

The MLC has lost some of its cohesion over the last few years as unions that promised unity of purpose at the outset of the last round of citywide collective bargaining ended up splintered as they sought the best deal for their own members. As the MLC talks continue, tensions are sure to increase between unions that are most vulnerable to layoffs – and therefore more inclined to bargain – and unions whose members’ jobs are safe.

Ms. Weingarten acknowledged the difficulty of maintaining unity. “That’s the big challenge here,” she said. “I’ll look to focus on where we have similarities, rather that our differences.”