The New York Times

February 7, 2003

Some Union Leaders Call Layoffs Bearable


CAreating a split among New York City's municipal unions, the leaders of three unions said yesterday that they would rather see city workers laid off than agree to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's demand for $600 million in givebacks.

The leaders of the unions, representing 8,000 supervisors, 7,000 police detectives and 730 police captains, said layoffs would do less harm than granting concessions that they said would erode benefits won over four decades of collective bargaining.

Mayor Bloomberg has warned that he will lay off 12,000 city workers unless the unions agree to $600 million in concessions in areas including health benefits and vacation time. He has said he will not begin bargaining over any raises, which he said must be tied to productivity gains, until the unions agree to a $600 million concession package.

Arthur Cheliotes, president of Local 1180 of the Communications Workers of America, which represents 8,000 supervisors and middle managers in many departments, said that faced with two undesirable options, he would choose layoffs over concessions.

"The mayor may want to put it in terms of what are we willing to do to ransom our colleagues so they keep their jobs," Mr. Cheliotes said. "I don't like layoffs, but we can't afford to ask our members to give up anything more."

Tom Scotto, president of the Detectives' Endowment Association, agreed. "If as a very, very last resort the city says, `We did everything else we could and have no other choice and you got to come up with additional hundreds of millions in benefit concessions or face the risk of layoffs,' " he said, "I'd say basic Labor 101, you take layoffs rather than give up benefits."

Labor experts said many union leaders, eager to stay in office, prefer some of their members laid off to enraging all of them by accepting concessions. Labor leaders also know the maxim of municipal bargaining: when layoffs occur, mayors usually get the blame, but when unions agree to concessions, union presidents get the blame.

Nonetheless, the leaders of several powerful municipal unions insisted that it would be fairer to accept concessions than to allow layoffs. They said concessions spread the pain, while layoffs throw needy workers overboard.

"We think every single person that has a job should maintain their job," said Lillian Roberts, executive director of District Council 37, the largest municipal union. "It's going to be hard for our people to support their families if they're laid off."

Al O'Leary, a spokesman for the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, which represents rank-and-file police officers, said the union disagreed with the captains' and lieutenants' unions. "Police services are so inextricably tied to the city's safety and economic recovery that there should be no discussion about reducing police resources or laying off police," Mr. O'Leary said.

It is unclear how this split within labor will affect the Bloomberg administration's negotiating stance and its ability to secure $600 million in concessions. For previous mayors, layoffs were generally unpopular because they cut into city services, while the public applauded mayors who secured concessions from labor, seeing it as strong leadership. Administration officials declined to discuss how the city's bargaining posture might be affected.

Jordan Barowitz, a City Hall spokesman, said: "We're pleased labor understands the dimensions of the city's fiscal problems. Everyone agrees the choices are difficult, and this is the beginning of a discussion."

Among the concessions proposed by the mayor are increasing employee co-payments for doctor visits, introducing a payroll deduction for basic health insurance and reducing the number of vacation days and holidays. Since the city has nearly 300,000 municipal workers, including teachers, the proposed $600 million in concessions would come to $2,000 per worker.

Randi Weingarten, chairwoman of the Municipal Labor Committee, which coordinates bargaining strategy for the city's unions, criticized the mayor's demand for concessions. "We feel they're asking for draconian givebacks," she said. "The things the city is asking will affect people in their pockets in a drastic way."

Ms. Weingarten, who is also president of the teachers' union, said it was too early to decide between layoffs and concessions. But she did not hide her dislike of layoffs.

"Economic security and job security are an important concern for my members," she said, "and layoffs also mean service cuts, so that should be an important concern for the public."

Ms. Weingarten said most unions were willing to work with the city to generate savings through measures like productivity gains, retirement incentives and cutting back on highly paid consultants.

Many union leaders complained that it was unfair for the mayor to demand $600 million in concessions because city workers accepted a major concession — a two-year wage freeze — in the mid-1990's. Having pushed through an 18 percent property tax increase, Mr. Bloomberg has argued that city workers need to share in the sacrifices to eliminate the city's $3.4 billion budget deficit.

But John Driscoll, president of the Captains Endowment Association, warned that further benefit cuts could backfire. Noting that about 4,000 members of the police force retired or resigned last year, he said reducing police benefits would only accelerate this exodus.

"You're going to take a demoralized work force that doesn't think it makes enough now and then impose further cuts upon them," Mr. Driscoll said. "I don't want people to lose their jobs. But the bottom line is, you've got to make sure your people are making a salary they can live on."