The New York Times

December 21, 2001

Police and Firefighters Win Court Victory in Seeking Raises


The State Court of Appeals ruled yesterday that the city's police and firefighter unions may ask a state panel to help resolve contract disputes. Union leaders had long sought that change in the hope that they would win significant raises that would make their pay comparable to that in suburban departments.

The Giuliani administration, arguing that its labor costs would skyrocket and bankrupt the city government, had challenged a state law giving the unions that right. The state's highest court unanimously turned back that challenge yesterday.

The law, passed in 1998, allows unions representing police officers and firefighters — like the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association and the Uniformed Firefighters Association — to appeal to the state's Public Employee Relations Board to step in on stalled negotiations. It effectively takes arbitration of contract disputes out of the hands of the city's Office of Collective Bargaining.

While that office tries to resolve disputes by comparing police and fire contracts to those of other city unions, the state's Public Employees Relations Board uses the contracts of police and fire unions in neighboring communities as a standard. Police officers in some counties near New York City are paid as much as 35 percent more than those in the city.

The court ruling could also have a significant effect on negotiations with other city unions.

Because it allows the city's fire unions to appeal to the state board, a spokesman for the firefighters union said, many firefighters might re-examine a contract tentatively agreed to this summer that is awaiting a formal ratification vote.

Furthermore, the police contract often sets the upper standard against which other city union contracts are measured. Any substantial increase granted by the state board would be likely to lead other unions to seek comparable raises. While a 1 percent raise for police officers would cost the city about $15 million a year, city officials have estimated that a 1 percent raise for all city unions would cost $100 million.

Since the city faces budget problems as a result of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, it was unclear how much latitude the state panel might have in granting a raise to officers, who have been working without a contract since July. Since the the attacks, the police union has argued that its members' heroics should be rewarded with sharply higher pay.

"Before Sept. 11 or after Sept. 11, it didn't make sense for New York City police officers to be paid substantially less than their counterparts," said Robert Linn, the union's chief negotiator. "What Sept. 11 did was show that New York City has a real need to have and retain highly trained police officers."

The union, which represents about 26,000 of the department's rank-and- file officers, has long argued for a "market adjustment" raise to bring city officer's salaries closer to suburban pay. In the early stages of negotiations, the union requested a 39 percent increase over two years, which it has lowered to 23 percent. The city has offered a raise of 10 percent over two years.

Mr. Linn said he hoped the court's decision would lead to a timely resolution of the negotiations. "Having an external board that looks at police salaries all over the state really gives an opportunity for a full and fair hearing, and I don't think that was possible before," he said.

The court's ruling alters more than three decades of city contract negotiations with its Fire and Police Departments. Under the 1967 Taylor Law, police officers, firefighters and other essential government employees are prohibited from striking. In return, they can seek binding arbitration from the state board, or from local labor boards created by municipalities, including the 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. After a judge struck that law down because it focused solely on New York City, the Legislature passed a new version, extending the state board's jurisdiction to contract disputes between all local governments and their unions.

In a statement, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani continued to defend the Taylor Law and expressed concern that the ruling might further dampen the city's budget outlook. "The law that created the Office of Collective Bargaining was written by, with and for all of the unions in the city," he said. "It is a law that has worked well for both sides for more than 30 years. The court did not agree."

The mayor also said the city's offer to the police union was fair. "We hope that the arbitrators will recognize the generous nature of the offer and appreciate the fiscal constraints now facing the city in light of the events of Sept. 11th,` he said.

In its court challenges, the city argued that extending the labor board's jurisdiction was a violation of home rule, the city's right to govern itself. But in upholding lower court decisions yesterday, the Court of Appeals ruled that because the 1998 law was a "special law" that serves a substantial state concern, the state panel has jurisdiction.

"We conclude that under the present statutory scheme, once a police or fire union pursues impasse resolution assistance" from the board and the board "declares an impasse, it has jurisdiction over scope of bargaining issues" with the city, the court wrote.

Labor experts said the ruling could significantly alter the landscape for contract negotiations in the city.

"It's a breakthrough for the union," said Eli B. Silverman, a professor of police studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who has studied labor relations in the department. "You've got to keep in mind that since '93, '94, they feel they've been unrewarded. You can get all the pats on the back you want, but you've got to pay the mortgage."

He added, "Inherently, they felt it was unfair, because if you believe the mayor's own claims that the police were the main propellant that has driven crime down, why not reward them more?"

Some, however, said it was premature to assume that the state board would do just that.

Daniel G. Collins, a professor at New York University who serves on the Board of Collective Bargaining, cautioned against any higher hopes for the new police pact because of the decision yesterday. He said he did not believe there would be any difference in rulings between the city and the state boards.

Mr. Linn, the police union negotiator, acknowledged that the state board might also consider the city's current economic woes, especially a projected $1 billion budget deficit. "The city's current budget does not make hard choices easier," he said.