The Chief

December 3, 1999

Union Vow: Won't Get Fooled Again

By Deidre McFadyen

With a new round of contract talks set to begin early next year, officials at the largest municipal unions are determined to maintain their united front against the Giuliani administration in the months ahead.

"I think the unions have learned from their past mistakes of letting the city divide and conquer," said Patrolmen's Benevolent Association President Patrick J. Lynch, whose participation in the compact that the 75 city unions have pledged is crucial.

'City Can't Divide Us'

Union officials say they are prepared to fend off any attempt by city negotiators to court a weak union and set a pattern that would be detrimental to the others. In particular, they are intent on making sure that every union wins a "substantial" base pay raise not tied to productivity increases.

In the last round of negotiations, the unions were forced to agree to a five-year deal that began with a two-year wage freeze. That pattern was set by District Council 37, then a close ally of Mayor Giuliani, in a ratification vote that was later discovered to have been rigged.

"We plan to cooperate with each other and constantly strategize," said Teamsters Local 237 president Carl Haynes about the new bargaining strategy. "If we don't do that, we can be picked apart."

Mayor Giuliani is holding fast to his position that all wage increases must be paid for with productivity gains. "We're more than willing to negotiate rises based on pure productivity," he said at his Nov. 18 press conference at City Hall. "I would also be more than happy to negotiate incentive pay and merit pay with them."

"How about a high raise for some, an average raise for others and no raise for some?" he went on. "That would be a leap forward for the city in terms of management."

United Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who heads the Municipal Labor Committee, spurned the notion that only some workers deserve a wage increase. "Everyone needs to pay their bills, which go up every year," she remarked. "They need to feed their families. They need to put their kids through college."

Efforts Worth a Raise

"Everyone deserves a raise in particular in light of what city workers have done to put the city in the position it is today," she said, referring to the current $2-billion surplus in municipal coffers.

With respect to her own union, she scoffed at merit pay for individual teachers, calling it a "one-shot gimmick" that was "antithetical to making sure that the entire school improves."

She continued, "Before you talk about bonuses, you have to create a salary structure that attracts and retains a corps of well-prepared teachers in every classroom."

Labor leaders were reluctant to discuss their strategy concerning the sequence in which they hope the unions will come to terms with the city, a key element if city negotiators once again insist on pattern bargaining.

The UFT and the PBA can marshal the strongest arguments for substantial pay increases, since city workers represented by those two unions earn considerably less than their counterparts in the surrounding suburbs. The city has had well-publicized difficulties recruiting qualified Teachers and Police Officers this year.

Both Mr. Lynch and Ms. Weingarten said that they were eager to begin early negotiations. The UFT contract expires in November, 2000, and the PBA contract expires in July.

"We are getting in there as soon as we possibly can," said Mr. Lynch. "The PBA is in the best possible position for bargaining there is."

Both leaders indicated that they would be looking for deals that did not mirror those of the rest of the pack.

"I'm not one who believes in lock-step pattern bargaining," said Ms. Weingarten.

Mr. Lynch stressed that his cooperation with the other city unions did not mean that he would accept the same terms as the rest. While forging common goals was important, he said, "That leaves us room to take care of the individual concerns of our individual unions."

"There cannot be a pattern," he said. "It is destroying the union." A pattern, he asserted, would not be fair to Police Officers who put their lives on the line and deserve extra credit for the city's plummeting crime rate.

In the last round of bargaining, the PBA fought vigorously against the pattern, but lost its case in arbitration.

Coattails Not Needed

While officials at several senior-officer unions indicated that the expected the PBA to lead the way among the police unions, officials at the other large civilian unions would not say that they were letting the UFT take the lead and took umbrage at the suggestion that they needed to ride on its coattails.

"Every union can make a strong case," said DC 37 chief negotiator Dennis Sullivan, who declined to discuss union strategy concerning a lead union. The contracts for DC 37's main titles expire at the end of March.

Mr. Haynes said that the fact that the contracts do not have a common expiration date made the issue of deferring to a lead union problematic. Local 237's citywide division contract expires on Dec. 31, 1999, and its housing division contract expires on March 31, 2000.

"There is the perception that [the UFT's case] could be stronger," said Mr. Haynes, whose union represents 23,000 city employees. "But I cannot wait until November to negotiate a contract."

Mr. Sullivan and Mr. Haynes said that they expected their unions to begin formal negotiations with the city at the end of January or early February. DC 37 and the Teamsters worked closely together in the last round of talks, but both leaders said it was too soon to tell whether they would do so again this time around.

Uniformed Firefighters' Association President Kevin Gallagher suggested that a single-minded focus on which union would settle first was misguided. "I don't care who the lead union is," he said at the MLC press conference in City Hall Park on Nov. 15. "Our goal is to get a fair package." The UFA contract will expire in June 2000.

Joint Strategy

At the annual MLC conference in Princeton, N.J., on Nov. 13-14, the 75 member unions agreed to a compact committing them "to work together, coordinating our bargaining strategies" to achieve a set of common goals, including a "substantial increase in real wages" and base wage raises "independent of any productivity improvements."

The unions also pledged to communicate regularly and share "bargaining strategies, financial analyses and statistics" with each other and to launch a campaign to educate the public about the need for fair labor contracts with city workers.

At the Princeton conference, the unions appear to have come to some common understandings around other issues that were not part of the formal compact that was made public.

Detectives' Endowment Association president Thomas Scotto said that the secondary police unions wrested a pledge from unions representing entry-level employees - in particular the PBA - not to engage in "attrition bargaining," a term that refers to gaining new benefits for current workers in exchange for givebacks that hurt future workers.

In previous rounds of bargaining, the PBA won enhanced longevity payments in return for reducing the number of vacation days for new officers and extending the length of time it takes a rookie to reach maximum salary.

Promotees Hurt

Those agreements hurt the secondary police unions, Mr. Scotto said, because they were forced to come up with a concession of equal value if they wanted the longevity payments. But for these unions, he said, taking it out of the pockets of the "new-born" meant sacrificing the wages and benefits of promotees.

Mr. Lynch confirmed that he had made the pledge, and said that the PBA had been wrong to engage in the practice in the past.

Asked to confirm whether there was a wider agreement to avoid attrition-based bargaining, Mr. Haynes said, "Philosophically, you could say that." He noted that it was easier for the unions to reach such an understanding at the current juncture since most city agencies are having difficulty recruiting new members because of the low starting salaries and benefits.

The city union leaders said they recognize the challenge they will face sticking together once the city offers a deal to one union that would help it but might have an adverse impact on other unions.

"It's going to be tough," Mr. Haynes conceded. "But I think the prospects are good. There's a willingness to communicate now. That's what we didn't have before."

Several leaders attributed their optimism in part to the dynamic leadership of Ms. Weingarten as the new head of the MLC. She replaced former DC 37 Executive Director Stanley Hill, who was ousted as head of his union and resigned the MLC post late last year.

Rally Round Randi

Sergeants' Benevolent Association President Joseph Toal lauded Ms. Weingarten's efforts to keep everyone informed and convene frequent meetings among the leaders. "Randi has been able to keep this coalition together," he said.

Mr. Sullivan also acknowledged Ms. Weingarten's role. "All of the member unions have gotten behind her leadership," he said.

About the prospect of lasting unity, Mr. Sullivan said that "all the omens are very positive now." He noted that the May 12 labor rally, attended by 40,000 workers from both the civilian and uniformed unions, along with the successful coordinated campaign against City Charter revisions in November set "a positive direction and momentum" that the unions can build on.

But Mr. Sullivan took pains to inject a dose of realism into the glad tidings. "One thing I do know about bargaining," he said, "is you really don't know what's going to happen until it happens."