The Chief
October 17, 2003

Razzle Dazzle

By Richard Steier

Among the city’s uniformed unions, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association is the 800-pound gorilla. This makes its president powerful enough to bend other labor leaders to his will and not have to say he’s sorry if he stomps on a few toes along the way.

But Mayors since the departure of Ed Koch 14 years ago have not treated the PBA with the kind of deference its muscle has secured it from other labor leaders. Perhaps most maddening to a succession of PBA presidents is that David Dinkins, Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg have all used contract settlements reached with other unions to thwart the PBA’s aspirations to bring its members’ salaries closer to those paid to cops in Nassau and Suffolk counties.

Grievance Built on a Hunch

The frustrations and tensions this has created served as the prelude for the blow-up two weeks ago when police and fire union leaders sneezed on Randi Weingarten’s prerogatives as chairman of the Municipal Labor Committee during a bargaining session on health benefits.

There is no other plausible explanation for why the group presented both Ms. Weingarten and Labor Relations Commissioner Jim Hanley with its “include us out” letter that hinges on the hunch of PBA President Pat Lynch that non-uniformed employees are getting a sweeter slice of a 2001 health benefits deal than cops and firefighters. So many of those police and fire union leaders last week were insisting that the incident stemmed from a misunderstanding rather than a rift seemed obvious that some other issue was involved.

A spokesman for Mr. Lynch insisted that the one-paragraph letter which was presented to both Ms Weingarten, who is also president of the United Federation of Teachers, and Mr. Hanley was merely an attempt “to protect our members’ rights.”

The letter signed by the presidents of all seven unions, had a decidedly confrontational tone, however. After stating that all of them were at the meeting strictly to monitor the proceeding, it concluded, “We are not currently part of any MLC coalition negotiating health benefits in this round of bargaining.”

Ms. Weingarten, infuriated at being sandbagged without prior warning, reportedly reacted by balling up the letter and throwing it across the conference table after Mr. Hanley left the room.

The source of the uniformed unions’ professed concern is the cost of the specialized drug program created under an MLC agreement in January 2001 that the PBA was alone in opposing at the time. Known as PICA, it covers psychotropic drugs that treat depression, as well as some that are injectable and those used with chemotherapy and the treatment of asthma.

There have been suspicions voiced by some uniformed union leaders, led by the PBA and Uniformed Firefighters’ Association President Steve Cassidy, that their members are using the benefits far less than civilian employees, making them reluctant to bear an equal share of the program’s costs. Back in May, PBA spokesman Al O’Leary said, the union sought utilization data from Mr. Hanely and was told it would have to make the request through the MLC, which is the authorized bargaining agent on health benefit issues.

Antagonized Civilian Colleagues

The PBA has challenged that claim in the past, and when the data was not provided by the Oct. meeting, it decided to force the issue along with the other unions in what is being called the Coalition of Police and Fire Unions on Pension and Health.

The fashion in which the group did so, however, antagonized a number of civilian employee union leaders besides Ms. Weingarten, DC 37 Research and Negotiations Director Dennis Sullivan, who plays a key role in the health benefits bargaining, was angry enough that after the meeting adjourned, he lashed out at the uniformed union leaders who were present in a DC 37 conference room.

Mr. Sullivan declined comment last week on his remarks, saying, “These deliberations are sensitive and important on bread-and-butter issues. The business of the unions should be done in the privacy of their own caucus.”

But the leader of another union, who spoke conditioned on anonymity, described Mr. Sullivan’s outburst this way; “It was about decorum at the bargaining table and the lack of it from [the police and fire unions.] They blindsided Randi. It was kind of amateurish.”

Mr. Hanley, normally hesitant to caustically criticize the other side, this time chose to hit the cop and fire union leaders where they live. “Not one of them had the intestinal fortitude to look me in the eye and say this was their position,” he remarked Oct.8. “They sent a lawyer wannabe up to tap me on the shoulder from behind and hand me the letter.”

What is especially curious is that the police and fire unions have no empirical data indicating that they are shouldering a disproportion share of the PICA program’s costs. Mr. O’Leary acknowledged, “In fact it is our goal to acquire such data to perform an analysis. Once we look at this data, it could be that usage is equal across the board.”

Acting on Suspicion

Which raised this question; Why alienate other labor leaders and leave themselves open to Mr. Sullivan’s lecture on honoring trade union principles on what currently is the equivalent of President Bush’s gut feeling about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?

The two driving forces, not surprisingly, in the coalition are Mr. Lynch and Mr. Cassidy. From Mr. Cassidy’s standpoint, the blowup – and its being reported two days later in the Daily News – was not a bad thing, coming a week before he asked his own delegate’s to approve a dues increase.

It couldn’t hurt, given the timing, to have his members know he was not only battling the city but making sure that other unions weren’t going to get a free ride as heavier users of the PICA program. By the time the utilization data was produced to show whether there was any substance to that claim, the dues issue would already be settled.

Mr. Lynch had no short-term political benefit at sake, and he recently began his second four-year term leading the PBA. But he has joined previous PBA presidents who have been pulled away from labor solidarity by the siren call of compensation for cops in Long Island that far surpasses what city cops are paid. His attempt through arbitration last year to close the widening pay gap was largely frustrated by the longstanding pay relationships among the municipal unions, and he won a deal that was only slightly better than the contract negotiated over two years earlier by a uniformed union coalition. The coalition itself had been constrained by an earlier settlement negotiated by DC 37.

Jabs at Coalition

And so when Mr. O’Leary was asked whether the static the police/fire coalition gave the MLC was an outgrowth of the frustration at having wage hikes linked to those won by other municipal unions, his response was telling.

“I think you learn by others’ mistakes, and there were other uniformed unions [in the last round of bargaining] that were served to a lesser degree by being locked in to the MLC,” he said.

But if the goal of the police/fire coalition is to break the links with the other unions that it regards as shackles, it’s unclear just how it will accomplish that goal in the health negotiations.

Mr. O’Leary questioned whether the MLC was truly the bargaining agent for all the unions, contending it could not reach a binding deal on health benefits unless the individual unions all gave their consent.

Ambiguous Ruling

He cited a ruling in a Public Employment Relations Board arbitration case 18 months ago that there was inconclusive evidence that the PBA was bound by the 2001 health benefits agreement reached by the MLC. The PBA spokesman also pointed to Mr. Hanley’s testimony in a Federal lawsuit brought by the Detectives’ Endowment Association more than 21 years ago that the MLC “does not collectively bargain with the city concerning wages, hours and terms and conditions of employment…” The PBA contends that health benefits fall under the heading of “terms and conditions of employment.”

Mr. Hanley disagreed. “Health insurance has been done through the MLC for the last 40 years,” he noted. The significance of that should not be lost on the PBA, since three times in the last dozen years its efforts to make a significant break in arbitration from bargaining patterns established by other city unions have been largely thwarted because of a wage negotiating history of similar duration.

And so Captains’ Endowment Association President John Driscoll may have been whistling in the dark when he said, “I didn’t give my collective-bargaining certificate to the MLC.” If past practice is precedent, that is exactly what the unions have done on health benefits. As one civilian union official noted, the PBA did not challenge the MLC’s authority to bargain some of the health-benefit improvements that came out of the last deal in addition to the PICA plan, including an additional $5 million a year for the citywide Health Stabilization Fund.

City Providing Data

Mr. Hanley said the PICA utilization data will be provided shortly, although not in a way that the police and fire unions could use to fire up their own members. “We are doing it in an orderly, rational fashion, consistent with the way we have done it for decades,” he said.

The union-by-union data will be provided to the MLC, which will then give individual unions their own breakdowns on usage. So while the PBA will be able to see how its spending on PICA drugs compares with the total cost of the program, it will not be given a breakdown for other unions, whether DC 37 or the Sergeants’ Benevolent Association.

Several officials offered hunches of their own that the police and fire unions are likely to find that while their members’ good health makes them less likely to take advantage of some PICA benefits, those members’ families, as well as the large percentage of police and fire retirees covered compared to civilian retirees, even out the overall costs. One official surmised that one injectable drug that is covered – human growth hormone – is more likely to be used by cops and firefighters than most other employee groups.

Mr. Driscoll called the internal contretemps “much ado about nothing,” and similar comments were made by several other uniformed union leaders, including DEA President Tom Scotto and Mr. Cassidy. The UFA president said if there had been tension during the Oct.2 meeting, it stemmed from his understanding that no bargaining was supposed to take place. That assumption “went right out the window,” he said, when Mr. Hanley threw out the possibility of health benefit co-payments and Ms. Weingarten responded by asking whether agreeing to them would be one plank in constructing a wage settlement.

Mr. Hanley retorted that this was hardly new business, since the health benefit co-payment demand was put on the table a year ago.

The discord among labor leaders complicates efforts to deal with a looming crisis in the Health Stabilization Fund, which would deplete its assets by early next spring if no deal is reached to provide a cash infusion by the city.

Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association President Norman Seabrook said, “If they cut the PICA program, our welfare fund’s going to have to pick it up. For some unions, it may mean the [benefit] goes belly-up.” Mr. Driscoll also acknowledged that reality, saying, “My fund might not be able to afford it.”

The Captains union president argued that the police and fire unions couldn’t be expected to “negotiate blind. You have to have hard-and-fast data to be able to make a decision.”

The truth is, however, that the data most likely would have been provided months ago had the PBA acted on Mr. Hanley’s instruction that it make its request through the MLC, rather than pursuing it separately.

COBA’s Middle Ground

During the last round of contract talks, Mr. Seabrook as head of the Uniformed Forces Coalition was sometimes the target of criticism from other coalition members for being too high profile. Now, however, as the smaller police and fire unions have chosen to cast their lot with the PBA, the COBA leader was the voice of moderation, taking a middle ground between those unions – which he said may not have fully recognized the impact of the city’s continuing budget problems because “they weren’t affected by layoffs” – and the civilian union officials whom they had antagonized.

“ They’re all good labor leaders, they’re all doing what’s best for their men and women,” Mr. Seabrook said of his uniformed colleagues. “But we have to put our differences aside and protect the individuals we represent. We have to check our egos at the front door and get in there and make something happen.”