The Chief
February 3, 2006

Mayor Seeking To Cut Union Benefits

Targets Pensions, Health

By REUVEN BLAU

Mayor Bloomberg used his Jan. 26 State of the City address to outline a list of ambitious housing, economic, and public-safety proposals, but he also renewed his call for reduced health-care and pension benefits for municipal workers.

Patrick Lynch    
PATRICK J. LYNCH: Mayor going wrong way.  

The latest attempt to establish a new pension tier for future hires and require employees to contribute more toward their health-care premiums was met with dismay by the city's unions.

Spurred Transit Strike

Randi Weingarten, the chairwoman of the Municipal Labor Committee, noted that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's attempt to create a less expensive pension tier for new workers in return for wage increases provoked a strike.

"I'm very surprised that the Mayor would throw out the health-care premiums and pension reforms in a speech like this today, given what we've just lived through in a transit strike," Ms. Weingarten, who is also the president of the United Federation of Teachers, told reporters after the speech.

Mr. Bloomberg's call for the need to reduce city health-care and pension costs mirrors efforts by several large private-sector companies throughout the nation. He contended that the concessionary changes are necessary for the city to "control spiraling costs and decrease the likelihood of tax increases and services cuts in the future."

He added, "We will work with labor and legislative leaders on innovative pension modification for future workers." The 51-minute speech was delivered in front of elected officials, union leaders, and community advocates gathered at the Snug Harbor Cultural Center on Staten Island.

Patrick J. Lynch, the president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, called the Mayor's health-care and pension proposals a "step backwards."

"He once again is pointing in the wrong direction in health-care and pension reform," he said in a Jan. 27 phone interview.

The NYPD, he noted, has been struggling to hire new Police Officers under the new drastically reduced $28,900 starting annual salary. "To do anything with the pension would make our recruitment and retention problem 100 times worse," Mr. Lynch said. "One of the ways to get more people to take the job is to offer them a pension benefit that's slightly better than others in the private sector."

DC 37 'Studying'

Donna Silberberg, a spokeswoman for District Council 37, said the union was "studying the proposals" with the MLC and New York City Employees' Retirement System officials.

The MLC warded off Mr. Bloomberg's attempts to have employees pay a greater share of their health costs during his first term, although some changes in a supplemental benefits plan that provides psychotropic, intravenous, cancer, and asthma drugs required increases in member co-pays.

"Having one premium-free health-care plan for the workers and their families who need it most is a core value for us," Ms. Weingarten said last week in a statement released following the speech. "Even in the darkest days of the city's financial crisis and the days after 9/11, the MLC rejected this idea - and other cuts were made instead." Many of the labor leaders urged the city, state, and Federal governments to look into regulating the costs of prescription drugs instead of demanding that civil servants contribute more toward their premiums.

"We should try to bring insurance costs into line and prescription costs in check and fix the root of the problem," Mr. Lynch asserted, "rather than hurting working people by taking more money out of their pockets."

    Norman Seabrook
  NORMAN SEABROOK: Reduce drug prices.

Norman Seabrook, the president of the Correction Officers' Benevolent Association, agreed. "I think that we need to take a look at the high cost of health care and prescription drugs," he said. "Something needs to be done."

Mark Rosenthal, the president of Motor Vehicle Operators Local 983 of DC 37, added, "This is not the far-to-the-left point of view, this is just what's right."

'Just a Wish List'

As for Mr. Bloomberg's latest attempt to reduce benefits, Mr. Seabrook said, "When we sit down at the bargaining table, then and only then will we be able to see details of the proposal." He continued, "He has his wish list, we have ours."

Many of the labor leaders pointed out that city workers have long accepted lower pay than their counterparts in the private sector in return for job stability and better health and pension benefits. "Whatever benefits we have, we paid for it," Mr. Rosenthal said. "We took [less in] wages."

He noted that many members of DC 37 barely make enough money to survive. "Some unions are one step over poverty," he remarked. "This would really be a hardship for the members of DC 37."

The Mayor's speech also dealt with education, public safety, Ground Zero, and social service issues.

On public safety, he renewed his call for stricter penalties for gun smugglers. He also said he would lobby for legislation that would give Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly a seat on the boards of the MTA and Port Authority "to ensure greater integration between government agencies for security planning, capital project planning and incident command."