The New York Times

April 16, 2001

Victory for Unions as Judge Upholds Law


ALBANY, April 16 — A judge upheld a state law today that would have a state board arbitrate contract disputes involving New York City's police officers and firefighters, a ruling the unions hope will help get them larger pay raises.

Lawyers for the city said immediately that they would appeal the decision by Justice Bernard J. Malone Jr. to the Appellate Division here. "This law is ill-conceived, unconstitutional and against sound public policy," said Daniel Connolly, a lawyer for the city. "We are at the beginning of a long road here."

At issue is a question that has haunted negotiations between the city and its police union for decades: whether contract impasses should be arbitrated by the State Public Employment Relations Board or by the city's Office of Collective Bargaining.

The Patrolmen's Benevolent Association has argued for years that the state board should resolve impasses. The state board's arbitrators can take into account how much officers and fire departments in richer suburban departments and other cities are being paid. Those departments pay as much as 35 percent more than the city pays.

"They are decades ahead of us in pay," said Patrick J. Lynch, the president of the police union. "All we are asking for is fair treatment."

But Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani has fought against the state law, fearing the city's labor costs would skyrocket. The city bargaining office compares the police and fire contracts primarily with those of other city unions. The police contract often sets the upper benchmark against which the other contracts are measured.

Under the 1967 Taylor Law, police officers, firefighters and other essential government employees are prohibited from striking. But in return, they can seek binding arbitration from the state employees relations board, or from local labor boards created by municipalities, including New York City's Office of Collective Bargaining.

In 1996, after heavy lobbying by the police union, the State Legislature overrode a veto by Gov. George E. Pataki to pass a law giving the state board jurisdiction over city contract disputes. But after a judge struck that law down because it focused solely on New York City, the Legislature passed a new version of the law, this time extending the state labor board's jurisdiction to contracts disputes between all local governments and their unions.

The law was not tested in court, however, until contract talks between the Giuliani administration and the police union broke down in December. The union took its grievances to the state board, asking it to declare an impasse and arbitrate the dispute. The union filed a suit with Justice Malone of the State Supreme Court seeking the same thing.

In the ruling today, Justice Malone said that the 1998 law did not violate the state Constitution, setting the stage for the state board to arbitrate the contract dispute.