The Chief
June 30, 2006

UFT Among 20 Unions to Form Wage Coalition

Hope to Cut Chains Of 'Pattern' Pacts;

DC 37, PBA Out

By RICHARD STEIER

A group of 20 public-employee unions led by the United Federation of Teachers will seek to negotiate a new wage contract as a coalition, its leaders announced June 23 at City Hall.

Michael J. Palladino    
The Chief-Leader/Adrienne Haywood-James

BANDING TOGETHER TO KEEP PACE: United Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten announces formation of a bargaining coalition aimed at giving its 20 unions improved contract leverage. 'We want to make sure we keep our health benefits, we want to make sure we keep our pensions, she said. 'We want to make sure we keep up with the housing costs and the gas costs.' Flanking her in the front row are, from left, Teamsters Local 237 Vice President Richard Hendershot, Uniformed Sanitationmen's Association President Harry Nespoli, Professional Staff Congress head Barbara Bowen, and Nancy Kaleda, the chief negotiator for the New York State Nurses Association.

 

While it also includes Teamsters Local 237, the Uniformed Sanitationmen's Association and other unions representing nurses, mid-level administrators and City University of New York Professors, notably absent from the bargaining group are District Council 37 - the largest municipal-employee organization - and unions representing police, fire and correction personnel.

Say City Anoints 'Pigeon'

UFT President Randi Weingarten, who will serve as one of five co-chairs of the coalition, said it was intended to end the process by which city negotiators could choose a single union with which to make what they hoped would be the cheapest possible contract deal, then seek to apply its terms to all other municipal employees.

"Why put that pressure on one individual union, when the city then turns around and says that is the pattern for everyone else?" Ms. Weingarten asked. Her remarks appeared to be aimed at the contract reached 26 months ago by DC 37, which has been widely criticized by other labor leaders for beginning with a wage freeze and then offering just 6 percent in raises for the remainder of its three-year duration. One percent of the pay hike was offset by givebacks that came primarily at the expense of new employees.

Labor Relations Commissioner James F. Hanley said of Ms. Weingarten's assertion, "I find that so offensive. I have never designated a union that was going to settle the first contract. Unions that want to settle their own contract and control their fate generally come to the table and do so."

DC 37, UFA Bargaining

DC 37 has been involved in serious negotiations with the Bloomberg administration for a couple of months, although it is not clear whether the two sides are close to a deal that would replace the contract that expired last June 30. The Uniformed Firefighters' Association, whose contract will expire July 31, began wage talks three days prior to the announcement of a coalition.

Asked whether there wasn't the potential for the city to reach a contract with DC 37 that would limit the aspirations of the 20-union coalition, Ms. Weingarten replied, "I wouldn't rule out that District Council 37 will ultimately be part of this coalition."

End-Dates Conflict

But DC 37 Executive Director Lillian Roberts rebuffed Ms. Weingarten's proposal to pool forces a month earlier, and indications are that the larger union's talks are far enough along to make it unlikely that Ms. Roberts will have a change of heart. An additional factor complicating matters is that the UFT's current pact does not expire until Oct. 12, 2007, more than 27 months after a new DC 37 deal would begin.

     F. James Hanley: Cites logistical problems
  JAMES F. HANLEY: Cites logistical problems.

Patrolmen's Benevolent Association President Patrick J. Lynch has made clear he is seeking a more ambitious contract than the coalition is likely to achieve in order to close the pay gap between what his members receive and the salaries for cops in neighboring suburbs. Compounding the problem from his standpoint is the fact that his members are working under a contract that expired Aug. 1, 2004, while many coalition members are under deals that do not run out until sometime in 2007. There are other police and correction unions currently trying to negotiate successor deals for pacts that expired as far back as 2003.

Not Apples to Apples

Mr. Hanley pointed to other inconsistencies that could pose problems in dealing with those unions that opted for the coalition. "We're dealing with different groups that come under different laws with different employers," he noted.

For example, the 20,000-member Professional Staff Congress, which represents instructors at CUNY, negotiates with university management. While the city is involved in those talks, so is the Governor's Office of Employee Relations. The same is true for a smaller contingent represented by the United College Employees of the Fashion Institute of Technology.

Unwieldy Health Talks

Ms. Weingarten had indicated that the coalition would address health benefits as well as wages. But health-related bargaining has traditionally been the province of the Municipal Labor Committee, and many of its prominent members - including DC 37 and the uniformed unions - figure to insist on that process continuing. Asked about the matter after the press conference, Ms. Weingarten - who also chairs the MLC - said through a spokesman, "Anytime we get to health issues, the entire MLC will be invited to the talks."

There would also be logistical problems if coalition members wound up in arbitration. While most of the unions have the right to binding arbitration under the auspices of the city Office of Collective Bargaining, the UFT is subject to a nonbinding fact-finding process under the state Public Employment Relations Board.

A 6-Month Experiment?

The chances of that becoming an issue seem to be lessened, however, by the limited duration of the coalition. It plans to jointly bargain for six months, with no indication as to what will happen if no agreement has been reached by the end of the year. Ms. Weingarten said the members of the coalition would spend the summer formulating their demands, meaning they were likely to have four months or less to bargain with the Bloomberg administration on their timetable.

Under the ground rules that coalition members have set, any proposed settlement would need the approval of at least three of the five co-chairs, and of at least twothirds of the unions in the coalition.

Besides those already identified, the coalition consists of: Service Employees International Union Local 1199, Communications Workers of America Locals 1180, 1182 and 1183, Sanitation Officers Association Local 444 of the SEIU, the Civil Service Bar Association, the Organization of Staff Analysts, Custodians Local 891 of the International Union of Operating Engineers, Auto Mechanics Local 246 of the SEIU, Civil Service Forum Local 300 of the SEIU, the Marine Engineers' Beneficial Association, the Uniformed Fire Alarm Dispatchers Benevolent Association, and United Marine Division Local 333 of the International Longshoremen's Association.

A Better Way

Speakers at the press conference made clear that whatever the flaws of the coalition, they believe it is a better alternative than the current system, in which a single union settlement has established a rigid pattern for other unions on more than one occasion, and there have been protracted delays in reaching deals long after wage pacts expire.

'Can't Stay Divided'

"This is long overdue in the union movement," said Sanworker President Harry Nespoli, who along with Local 237 President Carl Haynes will serve as co-chairs of the coalition with Ms. Weingarten. (Two other co-chairs will be selected.) "If we stay divided, they're just gonna pick us apart."

Referring to the extended period from the Oct. 22, 2002 expiration date of his previous pact until he reached a 51-month successor agreement last October, Mr. Nespoli said, "Three years without a wage increase is totally ridiculous."

He was among the union leaders standing on the steps of City Hall who expressed concern about a national trend of scrapping employee pension plans and requiring workers to pay a greater share of their health coverage, notwithstanding the fact that city pensions are guaranteed by state law. Mayor Bloomberg recently made an offer to DC 37 that would downgrade pensions for future employees so that they would have to work longer and contribute more to the pension system to receive the same retirement allowance as those already on the payroll.

'Set Benefit Standards'

"We must do better," said CWA Local 1180 President Arthur Cheliotes. "We must set a standard that says everyone is entitled to decent health care, affordable health care, to a decent pension."

Ms. Weingarten declared, "The middle class is eroding - the middle class that was built in the last 50 years in this city by the union movement." The coalition, she added, would pursue "basically fundamental fairness and economic security. We want a better life for our kids than we had for ourselves."

PSC President Barbara Bowen said that attempts to shortchange public employees at the bargaining table also come at the expense of the citizens they serve. "When you underpay the Teachers in New York, you are insulting the students," she said. "When you underpay Sanitation Workers, you are insulting every New Yorker who depends on public services."