The Chief
June 30, 2006

Editor's Column: 'Razzle Dazzle'

Coalition's a Round Late

By RICHARD STEIER

There are so many obstacles to the success of the bargaining coalition announced last week by United Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and 19 fellow labor leaders that there is a temptation to say it's an idea whose moment passed 2-1/2 years ago.

That was a time when the municipal unions were all at roughly the same point on the bargaining map: working under contracts that, with a couple of exceptions, expired within a year of each other, and dealing with an unpopular Mayor who had a troubled budget situation.

When Ms. Weingarten sought to present a united front then, however, she encountered resistance from Patrolmen's Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch and Uniformed Firefighters' Association President Steve Cassidy.

The Color of Envy

There has always been a reluctance on the part of police and fire union leaders to bargain on an equal footing with civilian employees. Longtime Sergeants' union President Harold Melnick used to put it this way: "You tell a cop he's getting a 5-percent raise and a Teacher's getting 5 percent, he won't like that. You tell him he's getting 4 percent and the Teacher's getting 3, that he'll like."

Add that mentality to the growing restlessness among cops about how far behind their salaries are compared to their counterparts in Nassau and Suffolk, and Mr. Lynch concluded he had to shoot the moon rather than settle for the modest gains that a union coalition was likely to produce. Mr. Cassidy, banking on the historic parity relationship between cops and firefighters, figured his best shot lay in following the PBA's lead. The end result was that District Council 37 Executive Director Lillian Roberts, impelled by her internal political troubles and the anxiety among her members - among the poorest-paid in the city work force - about the crush of living expenses after nearly three years without a pay raise, in April 2004 accepted a contract offer that was cheaper than any of the other unions could have imagined.

That deal wound up influencing the subsequent bargaining of all the other municipal unions, as well as the PBA's contract arbitration. Mr. Lynch and some of his uniformed union supporters have claimed that his arbitration deal "shattered" the notion that the DC 37 accord was a binding pattern, arguing that even counting the 4 percent worth of givebacks suffered by future cops, the deal provided a net gain of 6 percent over two years, while the first two years of DC 37's three-year contract gave its members just 3 percent in recurring raises.

But in the process, the PBA deal blew a hole not only in the pay plan for its future members but for the NYPD career ladder, since the other police unions are being forced to accept even greater givebacks affecting future promotees. Ms. Weingarten, who opted to take smaller raises to keep new members from getting hammered by a reduction in the UFT pay scale, lamented the damage done by those who shunned the coalition.

In giving it life last week, however, she placed herself and other members of the bargaining group in such a maze that even a road map might not lead them to a satisfactory journey to the other side.

During a press conference at City Hall, she and other union leaders spoke about bargaining in a manner that protected longtime benefits for future workers as well as those they already represent, and about asserting themselves in the name of the middle class that the union movement in the city has produced over the past 50 years.

History of Undercutting Themselves

But the gains made at the bargaining table by the municipal unions have also produced a negotiating history that over the past two decades has consistently revolved around city negotiators outmaneuvering their union counterparts, in no small measure by playing the unions off each other.

Mayor Bloomberg, like his recent predecessors, is able to turn his attention to a single issue: the bottom line for city labor costs. He didn't need union help to transform his image, fill his campaign coffers or get out the vote, although the number of converts he made surely contributed to a landslide re-election victory last November that would have been unimaginable 18 months earlier.

Nor is he going to stew, as cops do, about disparities in pay between city titles and comparable ones in other cities. Let the PBA worry about outdoing the other unions; Mr. Bloomberg's only concern is keeping down labor costs for everyone, and the easiest way to do that is to treat everybody the same. Paying less to some employees would give arbitrators an opening to grant more money to others.

Mr. Bloomberg also doesn't have to worry about philosophical differences among his budget and labor relations offices wrecking his contract strategy. Even his Police Commissioner's complaints about the last PBA contract's impact on recruiting have not prompted a precipitous attempt to fix the problem; the city's latest offer to the PBA would pay for a bolstered salary scale by reducing other benefits for cops.

There is no getting away from how union rivalries and past bitterness affects bargaining from labor's side of the fence, however.

No Love Lost

That is a big part of the reason that Ms. Roberts brushed off Ms. Weingarten's entreaty to join the coalition, even though several of the most vocal critics of her last contract won't be part of the group. She knows Ms. Weingarten was among those critics, and Ms. Roberts is both proud and stubborn to a fault. The past criticism may make her less likely to settle on the cheap this time, but it also virtually ensured that she would not surrender the prerogative to negotiate the first contract of the bargaining round, no matter the pressure and scrutiny that accompanies that responsibility.

Early last week, one aide to Ms. Weingarten described Correction Officers' Benevolent Association President Norman Seabrook as being "on the fence" about joining the coalition. By June 22, he opted to go it alone. Asked what he saw as the biggest disadvantage to bargaining as part of a group, he replied, "Quite honestly, nobody wants to get along with each other."

Two rounds back, Mr. Seabrook headed a coalition of uniformed unions that included everyone except the PBA, and despite some early grousing about one statement he made to the New York Times, most coalition members were satisfied with the contract that was produced in the summer of 2001.

A Uniformed Reluctance

Some uniformed union leaders said last week that their experience then proved that coalition bargaining worked. But one of them, Lieutenants' Benevolent Association President Tony Garvey, expressed a common view when he said he felt most comfortable bargaining in tandem only with other uniformed unions.

"A uniformed coalition, from my experience, seems to get a uniformed premium," he said. "We got that in the previous round of bargaining and during the Koch administration," referring to the decisions of ex-Mayor Rudy Giuliani during the 2001 talks and Ed Koch throughout his final decade in office to give uniformed employees slightly better raises than civilian workers received.

Even without that belief, however, Mr. Garvey acknowledged, "The stars don't line up right here for me." His concerns start with the fact that while most coalition members will be seeking contracts to replace current deals that end sometime in 2007, he still hasn't negotiated a contract to replace the LBA pact that expired four years ago.

A Two-Year Void?

Captains' Endowment Association President John Driscoll, whose old pact ran out Oct. 31, 2003, has a similar dilemma. He could wind up in arbitration, Mr. Driscoll noted, which would limit the successor contract to two years unless both he and the city agreed to accept a longer deal. That presented the prospect of getting an arbitration award that ran through October 2005 after the Weingarten coalition reached a deal that would probably begin in 2007, giving Mr. Driscoll a two-year hole in between to fill in. It's a bit more trouble than he wants to have to navigate.

Mr. Cassidy was perhaps the most vociferous union critic of the DC 37 deal, and last month he questioned how useful a coalition could be if DC 37 was a free agent and therefore at liberty to bargain its own contract again. Last week he declined comment except to note that he had begun negotiations on a new deal with Labor Relations Commissioner Jim Hanley June 20. "We're prepped and ready to go," the UFA leader said, without regard to what DC 37 or the coalition may do. "Our intention is to move forward."

Even Booster Hesitates

Aside from Uniformed Sanitationmen's Association President Harry Nespoli, who will be one of the coalition co-chairs, and Joe Mannion, another coalition member who heads Sanitation Officers' Association Local 444 of the Service Employees' International Union, the only uniformed union leader to unequivocally declare support for the coalition was Sidney Schwartzbaum, who heads the Assistant Deputy Wardens'/Deputy Wardens' Association.

"It's the only way to go," he said June 21. "I just have some major concerns about DC 37 setting a pattern again." And he predicted that other union leaders representing superior officers in the Fire, Police and Correction Departments would eventually sign on, particularly once some outstanding current contracts were resolved.

When the coalition was announced two days later, however, Mr. Schwartzbaum was not part of the group. "I'm just mulling the fact that [almost] no other uniformed unions are on board," he said, adding that he expected to eventually join.

A Logistical Mess

Looking over each other's shoulder is a big part of the problem for the unions. The lack of anything resembling uniformity in their contract situations is another hindrance. As Mr. Hanley noted, some unions in the coalition negotiate under the jurisdiction of both the city and the state, others just the city; if they wanted to go to arbitration, some are contractually required to use the state process, others the city mechanism. That's before you even consider the logistical problems caused by the current contracts for Teamsters Local 237 and Communications Workers of America locals that joined the coalition having expired last year, 26 or more months before the current deals for the UFT, the Professional Staff Congress and the New York State Nurses Association will run out.

Bill Henning, a vice president of Communications Workers of America Local 1180, said the common bond for coalition members is a weariness with concessionary contracts in which the unions have forsaken benefits for future members to "buy" portions of the raises for those already on the job. Even if the move has short-term political value for union leaders, it has left a sour taste in the mouths of those who are now signed on with Ms. Weingarten, the prime holdout on the "unborn" giveback trail.

'Can't Go Backwards'

"There was a general consensus that we're not looking to go backwards," Mr. Henning said. "They're united on the fact that it's time we stopped bargaining from a defensive posture. I think it starts with putting forward the most-unified group of people that you can." During her press conference, when asked about concerns that a new DC 37 contract might hamstring the coalition, Ms. Weingarten said, "I wouldn't rule out that District Council 37 will ultimately be a part of this coalition."

Afterwards, however, she expressed a more realistic view, saying that at the very least, the coalition's existence gave DC 37 some extra bargaining leverage: threatening to join it might prompt the Mayor to improve his wage offer to win himself a more favorable deal than the coalition would be willing to accept.

"I don't see it," Mr. Hanley replied when asked about that theory.

His response wasn't surprising. It's clear, though, that Ms. Weingarten is trying to thread the needle under conditions where any one of several scenarios could compromise the bargaining hopes of both the coalition as a whole and her own union.

UFT's Forced Discipline

Last fall she cobbled together a decent raise for her members without stomping on her salary scale by agreeing to have members work extended days - and add several days to their schedules - in return for extra compensation. Since then, the UFT has adopted two resolutions: one vowing not to swap time for money for the third consecutive contract, the other not to continue working if a new deal is not in place when the old one expires.

That might explain why the coalition has been set up as a six-month effort to gain a deal that satisfies all its member unions. If any of the many things that could go wrong occur, the scheduled dissolution of the collective effort at the end of the year would give Ms. Weingarten a bit more than nine months to wrestle with the restrictive parameters imposed by her union on itself.