Chief-Leader
January 6, 2014

 

Ex-Chief Negotiator Under Koch Given Reins by de Blasio

Linn Promises More Respect For Workers, Declines To Outline Strategy

By RICHARD STEIER

Even as some municipal union leaders who dealt with Robert W. Linn as Mayor Ed Koch’s chief negotiator questioned whether he would be as sympathetic to city workers as he sounded in accepting Mayor de Blasio’s offer to return to the role he left 24 years ago, one of them said that who the city’s Labor Relations Commissioner was mattered less than the marching orders he was given.

“He was working for a different administration,” Arthur Cheliotes, president of Communications Workers of America Local 1180 since the late 1970s, said Dec. 31 of Mr. Linn’s six years as Director of the Office of Labor Relations under Mr. Koch, who had first gotten elected vowing to be tough on the unions. He was viewed by some of them as unnecessarily hard-nosed on some issues even as he became reasonable on wage hikes as the city’s finances improved.

Question of Appreciation

Some union leaders during that period accused Mr. Linn of being a bit too cheeky when there were disagreements, and Mr. Cheliotes said, “One of the things that troubles me is, I don’t know if he has an appreciation for the career civil servant.”

But, he added, Mr. Linn’s having sometimes represented unions as a consultant—most notably the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association in its 2002 contract arbitration case—since leaving city government when Mr. Koch’s term ended meant that “having been on both sides, I think he may be able to work some deals out. Bob’s a professional negotiator, but the policies of the Mayor are the key.”

(PBA President Patrick J. Lynch, who worked with Mr. Linn a decade ago, declined comment on the appointment.)

Mr. de Blasio has a reputation for being more labor-friendly than Mr. Koch, and certainly than Mayor Bloomberg. But he and Mr. Linn are confronting financial realities that will affect their willingness to meet some union demands, as well as having to worry about two pending arbitrations that could wind up costing the city billions of dollars in retroactive raises.

‘Standard of Living Eroded’

Mr. Cheliotes referred to the long waits for new contracts endured by the unions, foremost among them one of those now in arbitration—the United Federation of Teachers, whose old pact expired on Nov. 1, 2009. Pointing to an 18-percent rise in the Consumer Price Index since October 2009, he said, “There’s an erosion in our standard of living. [Mr. de Blasio] has talked about it. Now the question is, will he do something about it?”

Neither the new Mayor nor his Labor Commissioner was answering such questions at the appointment announcement, less than 10 hours before Mr. de Blasio actually assumed office.

“Clearly, sitting down and talking with all the union leaders is going to be first on my agenda,” Mr. Linn told reporters. He is expected to officially assume the post held for most of the last 24 years by his former First Deputy, James F. Hanley, the week after next.

‘Unprecedented Challenge’

He declined to answer a question about how much negotiating he would actually be able to do before the UFT arbitration, which is nonbinding, and a binding process involving the New York State Nurses Association, are completed, which might not be until early spring. Nor would he discuss whether he might seek to negotiate settlements with those unions prior to awards and recommendations being made in those arbitrations.

Mr. de Blasio said that under any circumstances, Mr. Linn would be stepping into “one of the most important jobs in government” despite its lack of a high profile. Its role is accentuated, he continued, by the “unprecedented challenge” the city is facing: due to the stalemate between Mayor Bloomberg and the municipal unions that lasted through his final term in office. Every one of them is working under a long-expired contract; among the major unions besides the UFT that are seeking to resolve the pay droughts are the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association and Uniformed Firefighters Association, whose deals are 41 months out of date.

But Mr. Linn, who created hard feelings among some uniformed-union leaders by reaching a 1988 deal with the PBA that tied improvements in compensation to that union’s attrition rate, which forced labor heads with more-stable workforces to agree to steeper concessions, offered a ringing testimonial to municipal workers, calling them “the backbone of the city.”

He told reporters, “It has become fashionable to denigrate public-sector workers. You will never hear that from any of us.”

With his former boss in the Koch administration, ex-First Deputy Mayor Stanley Brezenoff, standing a few yards away, Mr. Linn, who has negotiated on behalf of the Greater New York Hospitals Association, cited members like Mount Sinai, Montefiore and Maimonides (which Mr. Brezenoff once headed) as “jewels of the city. They have proved that they can be the best health-care providers in America with a unionized workforce.”

Brezenoff’s Advisory Role

Mr. Brezenoff was named an unpaid Special Adviser to First Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris, and Mr. de Blasio said he “will particularly focus on labor relations.” Mr. Brezenoff was also Mr. Shorris’s boss, both in the Koch administration and during his tenure as Executive Director of the Port Authority.

The Mayor-elect called him “a progressive; legendarily a progressive who knows how to make things work.”

During the press conference, which was held on the same day that a front-page New York Times story focused on the slow pace of his appointments to top jobs, Mr. de Blasio introduced three other agency heads: Polly Trottenberg as Transportation Commissioner, Gilbert Taylor as Commissioner of Homeless Services, and Kyle Kimball, who will continue in his job as President of the Economic Development Corporation.

And when asked about forecasts that a day after taking office he would be facing a possible snowstorm, the new Mayor disclosed that the city aide whose agency does the most to cope with such situations, Sanitation Commissioner John J. Doherty, had agreed to stay on for several months in the new administration, as had two other heads of vital agencies, Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano and Emergency Management Commissioner Joseph F. Bruno.

“I’m comfortable in their transitional leadership,” he said of the three longtime agency heads.