The Chief
October 17, 2003

Police and Fire Unions Question MLC’s Authority

Disruption of Health Bargaining Talks Reveals Schism

By Deidre McFadyen

Simmering tensions between the city’s uniformed and civilian unions over dwindling funding for a popular new drug benefit turned into open rebellion Oct.2 when police and fire union presidents announced at the start of the first bargaining session on health benefits that the Municipal Labor Committee did not represent them at the table.

The decision, conveyed in a two-sentence letter that was handed to the city’s chief negotiator, blindsided Municipal Labor Committee chair Randi Weingarten, who was residing at the meeting.

‘Slap in the Face’

“It was a slap in the face of the whole committee,” said one union official who was in the room. “You don’t go to the other side and say the credibility of your chief negotiator is in question. That’s just not done.

The police and fire union presidents responded that they were compelled to act when the tenor of the MLC caucus meeting preceding the formal session led them to fear that the agenda would not be limited to setting ground rules.

They sought to minimize the significance of their move. “Everybody is making a lot about nothing,” said Uniformed Firefighters’ Association President Stephen J. Cassidy.

United Federation of Teachers President Weingarten, who reportedly laced into the uniformed leaders following the session, declined to comment on the dispute.

‘We Need to Focus’

“The city and all the municipal unions need to focus jointly to make sure that city workers do not lose these vital benefits,” she said.

Hanging in the balance is the survival of full coverage for prescription drugs that treat cancer, asthma, and depression or psychosis, or are injected at home. No one foresaw how popular these so-called PICA drugs would be among the city’s 500,000 active workers and retirees when the Giuliani administration and the MLC agreed in 2001 to tap the Health Insurance Stabilization Fund to pay for them.

The fund has recently been running a $10 million monthly deficit and will be empty by the spring if the city does not contribute more cash, union sources said. Bloomberg officials also contended that the city is owed $100 million from the fund and intends to collect half that amount.

If the fund goes bust, unions would either have to absorb the cost through their respective welfare funds, which are already under enormous fiscal strain, or allow the comprehensive drug coverage to lapse and let city health insurance plans pick up pieces.

Looking for Data

Driving the dispute is a suspicion among police and fire union leaders that their members don’t use the PICA drugs as much as other unions’ members do. If the utilization data for their members bears that out, they are said to be reluctant to be party to an MLC agreement in which each union shares equally in the costs of sustaining the drug benefit.

The fire and police unions complain that they have been asking the city for the data since May.

“We have received nothing but lip service from the city,” said Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Patrick J. Lynch. “the fact that the city is not forthcoming with this readily available information makes us suspicious of their motives.”

Labor Relations Commissioner James F. Hanley responded that his office was gathering the information in response to an MLC request made about a month ago. He said he had previously told the fire and police unions that his office’s policy was to only respond to requests from the official bargaining agent.

At the bargaining session at District Council 37 headquarters earlier this month, a PBA lawyer tapped Mr. Hanley on the shoulder from behind as he was taking his seat and handed him a letter on letterhead for the new “Coalition of Police & Fire Unions on Pension & Health.”

“We would like to advise you that the undersigned are present today only to monitor the discussions at this meeting. We are not currently part of any MLC coalition negotiating health benefits in this round of bargaining,” said the letter, which was signed by all seven presidents.

Ms Weingarten was simultaneously given a copy of the same note.

An enraged Mr. Hanley reportedly began to berate the fire and police union heads in the room. When tempers cooled off, the session resumed.

After city negotiators left the room, Ms. Weingarten crumpled the note and threw it on the table, admonished the police and fire union heads for trying to sabotage the session, and stormed out, according to several officials present.

A Break With Past

While the city unions negotiate wage agreements separately, they have historically bargained as a coalition on health benefits.

The fire and police union heads said they wanted to reserve their right not to be bound by any agreement on health benefits until they had analyzed their unions’ individual usage if the PICA drugs.

“How can we bargain intelligently if you don’t have the facts in front of you? said Sergeants’ Benevolent Association President Edward D. Mullins.

Mr. Hanley called the last minute letter “a childish little stunt” that undermined the credibility of the labor leaders who wrote it but would not have a significant impact on bargaining.

The police and fire leaders denied that they had planned the curve ball prior to the meeting. Mr. Mullins insisted that it was only at the tail end of a one-hour MLC caucus that preceded the bargaining session, when the subjects of layoffs and the possibility of higher co-pays were broached, that they decided to act.

Mr. Cassidy said that Ms. Weingarten had previously assured them that there would be no negotiations at the first meeting. “That went right out the window,” he said.

Asked to explain the letter they brought if their decision was made at the spur of the moment, Mr. Cassidy said, “Thank God we did. That’s being prepared for the worst case scenario.”

‘Didn’t Mean to Disrupt’

Mr. Mullins said that they informed Ms. Weingarten of their intentions just before the meeting. “Where it became a mistake was we all took it for granted that someone else handed the letter to her and nobody did,” he said.

“Nobody was looking to disrupt the process for everyone else,” Mr. Mullins added.

Many union officials privately voiced dismay that the fire and police unions allowed the city to see the coalition in disarray.

“What they did was absolutely despicable,” said one. “There are certain cardinal rules of labor. You have your disagreements in private.

Communications Workers of America Local 1180 President Arthur Cheliotes previously predicted that Mayor Bloomberg’s attacks on labor would unite the unions in opposition to their common adversary, “It was my hope that we’d have a bit more solidarity that we are all in this together,” he said. “It’s not there right now.”

The police and fire union leaders, he said, appeared to be venting their frustration from recent wage deals tied to those of the civilian unions even as they lost hundreds of members in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“They feel they’ve been slighted and somehow shortchanged in the past and have resolved not to allow that to happen again,” Mr. Cheliotes said.

Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association President Norman Seabrook said the police and fire unions may not attach the same urgency to dealing with the health benefits problem as the other unions because they are not in danger of layoffs.

Questions Focus

He said that the extent to which usage rates vary among the unions should be irrelevant. “I don’t care whether Joe is getting six injectables or not,” he said. “If you save one child’s life, it’s worth it.

Mr. Seabrook contended that all the union leaders had to pull together to address the shortfalls in health benefits funding. “We have to put our differences aside and protect the individuals we represent,” he said. “We have to check our egos at the front door and get in there and make something happen.”

Mr. Cassidy said that the fire and police unions were not looking to carve out their own agreement. But when asked if he would abide by an MLC agreement on health benefits regardless of what the utilization data revealed, he demurred.

The fire union leader sidestepped the question of whether he believed the fire and police unions have the right to bargain separately on health benefits. It is the city’s position that they do not.

PBA Disagrees

PBA spokesman AL O’Leary took the opposite view. “The only ones who can negotiate for specific titles are the people who represent those titles,” he said. “The right has not been assigned to the MLC. They don’t have the legal right to bargain for us.”

Union officials remained optimistic that the MLC would surmount its divisions.

“I think in the long run everything will work out,” said Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association President Harry Nespoli. “When you get that many people together, there are going to be disagreements. I don’t think they are unpatchable.”

Seeing the glass as half full, he added, “The last time I looked they are still part of the MLC. That’s a good sign right there.”