The Chief
November 26, 2004


Misreading PBA Arbitrator

With the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association contract arbitration hearings just under way, one of the more peculiar sidelights of the proceedings is the sprouting up of a cottage industry of misinformation regarding past actions by the arbitration panel chairman, Eric Schmertz.

Both the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association's Web site and Daily News columnist Richard Schwartz have described Mr. Schmertz in such a way that those reading them might conclude that a big win for the union is the kind of slam dunk a former CIA Director once saw in the case for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

By implication, this could lead readers to believe that the Bloomberg administration has been snookered and bamboozled or, if you're a conspiracy buff, that the Mayor is following the past tradition of County Executives on Long Island in giving away the store to a police union through an arbitration process while pretending to take a tough stance in bargaining.

Unfortunately for the PBA and Mr. Schwartz the facts they present to fuel such theories bear little relation to reality. In the PBA's case, the reason may be that the seismic change at the top of the organization prompted by the election pf Pat Lynch as president in 1999 stripped the union of a large part of its institutional memory. Mr. Schwartz's errors are more likely traceable to his own ideological bias and a disuse of his faculty for critical analysis that began during a tenure as Special Adviser to Mayor Giuliani, when reasoning consisted of the recurring declaration, "You're right, Rudy."

A couple of years ago, as the city breathed a collective sigh of relief that a transit strike had been averted, Mr. Schwartz was the bright boy who railed that the Bloomberg administration had blundered in not forcing a walkout so as to bust out Transport Workers Union Local 100 and bring about drastic changes in work rules.

In his Nov. 22 column, he once again unfurled his ignorance in the service of an anti-labor screed in which he suggested the PBA had never negotiated seriously because it was counting on arbitration before Mr. Schmertz. "This veteran mediator has a long history of shafting the city," Mr. Schwartz wrote.

As Exhibit A, he stated that former Mayor Ed Koch fired Mr. Schmertz 23 years ago "for giving the store away to the unions during an arbitration." This comment is so dumb that we're not even sure Mr. Schwartz is aware of what Mr. Schmertz did that so displeased Mr. Koch. The 1980 ruling that led our then-Mayor to decline to approve his re-appointment to the Board of Collective Bargaining merely required the city to pay raises that the unions had agreed to defer during the fiscal crisis of the mid-1970's.

The primary issue involved was whether the conditions had been met to trigger payment of those hikes: a balanced city budget and the ability to enter the credit markets again. Mr. Koch may not have been thrilled about having to pay the deferred raises at a time when the city's budget was not yet flush with prosperity, but there were few if any labor relations professionals who quarreled wit the BCB's finding that the criteria for payment had been satisfied.

Mr. Schwartz's second and final example of how Mr. Schmertz gave away the store is also based on faulty facts, and on this one he is joined in error by the PBA Web site.

The Schwartz version of what occurred is this: "a Decade later, former Mayor David Dinkins canned him after Schmertz, as the city's top labor negotiator, cut an exorbitant teachers deal."

The PBA's take on what occurred is that after becoming Mr. Dinkin's Labor Relations Commissioner, " He left after only five months after a furor erupted when he agreed to break the pattern and award the teachers in excess of the civilian settlement."

Once again, an intrusion of reality is in order. There was no civilian pattern to break, and any blame for the 1990 United Federation of Teachers deal being more costly than it should have belongs primarily in Mr. Dinkins's lap.

In late September of that year, Mr. Schmertz was on the verge of a contract agreement with Teamsters Local 237 that would have granted that union's members a 4.5 percent raise. He intended to use this deal as leverage in his bargaining with other city unions, among them the UFT, which was due to meet with him the next day.

Mr. Dinkins, however, according to other officials familiar with what transpired, hesitated on approving the deal, leaving Mr. Schmertz with nothing conclusive when he meet the following afternoon with then-UFT President Sandy Feldman. He offered her the same terms, and she took umbrage and demanded to meet with Mr. Dinkins. Mr. Schmertz, a relatively inexperienced negotiator despite his long and distinguished career as a neutral, made the mistake of granting her demand for a personal meeting. By the time Ms. Feldman got done prodding Mr. Dinkins to prove that he was serious about improving education she squeezed a 5.5-percent raise out of him. Adverse reaction within his administration and by newspaper editorial writers wound up being held against Mr. Schmertz, and by the following spring he had been forced to step down.

In neither case did Mr. Schmertz show a bias toward labor. And so neither those seeking to offer optimism to cops nor those with less-noble motives should jump to conclusions that this arbitration will produce a windfall at the city's expense.