The New York Times

March 1, 2003

Unions Predict Fight, Not Deal, From City's Budgeting Tack


The city's municipal labor unions warned yesterday that Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg was heading for a collision with them if he continued to insist that they agree to $600 million in concessions as a condition for holding wage talks.

Union leaders also announced that they had agreed to set up three committees with the Bloomberg administration to find ways to save the city $600 million, not necessarily through concessions, but perhaps through less painful means, like early retirement incentives.

Many union leaders said they remained adamantly opposed to the mayor's proposed cuts in benefits, like increasing co-payments for doctors' visits. The union leaders said the cuts would further squeeze pocketbooks for workers already faced with higher property taxes and transit fares.

Mayor Bloomberg has made little headway in persuading Albany to provide more money to close the city's $3.4 billion budget deficit, and his administration has made unions the current focus of its efforts to cut the deficit.

Labor leaders said that the proposed $600 million in givebacks would cost municipal employees an average of $2,400 each. "It's absolutely a pay cut when you cut any of our benefits, health benefits, pension benefits," said Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, which represents rank-and-file police officers. "We need to speak in one voice to defeat these draconian proposals."

The Bloomberg administration is threatening further cuts in agency budgets and an unspecified number of workers to be laid off if the unions do not agree to $600 million in givebacks by April 1. In a budget report last November, the mayor threatened to lay off 12,000 workers if the unions did not accept $600 million in concessions.

The administration has also said it would not negotiate new contracts with the city's unions until they agree to a $600 million concessions package.

Carl Haynes, president of Teamsters Local 237, which represents 20,000 city workers, said, "It's not fair that the mayor wants $600 million and then he wants another round of concessions because he's saying any raises you get in the future you're going to have to pay for with productivity increases. It's a double hit, and we're not going to take a double hit."

Randi Weingarten, the teachers' union president and chairwoman of the Municipal Labor Committee, which coordinates bargaining for the city's unions, said she was trying to find some middle ground between the Bloomberg administration and some of the harder-line unions.

"You can very easily get into an impasse with the mayor saying, `We're not going to begin negotiations until you agree to the $600 million,' and the unions saying, `We're not going to think about the $600 million unless we engage in negotiations over everything at the same time,' " she said. "If we both stick to these positions, no one will get anywhere and most importantly, the public will lose."

The Bloomberg administration said it was pleased that the unions had agreed to establish three committees in which union leaders and city officials would seek to agree on ways to trim the deficit. One committee will focus on health, one on pension and retirement issues, and one on ways to lobby more effectively in Albany and Washington to obtain more revenues.

Jordan Barowitz, a City Hall spokesman said, "We are pleased that our labor leaders understand the magnitude of the city's fiscal crisis. And we look forward to working with them over the coming months to achieve the necessary productivity gains in order to balance the budget."

On Jan. 31, the Bloomberg administration gave the city's unions 21 proposals for concessions, including establishing unpaid holidays, creating a furlough program for workers and instituting employee-paid premiums for all health plans.

"The things proposed to reach $600 million would be painful to our members," said Lillian Roberts, executive director of District Council 37, the municipal union representing 125,000 workers. "Our members are low paid, they average $29,000 a year, and these cuts would be a real sacrifice for them."

Ms. Weingarten said labor unions hoped as much as possible to avoid concessions that take money out of workers' pockets.

She said the city could save $100 million a year by furnishing retirement incentives that persuade 2,500 experienced teachers, averaging about $80,000 a year, to retire and then replacing them with new teachers, averaging $40,000 a year. She said $200 million a year could be saved if the incentives persuaded 5,000 of the city's 80,000 public school teachers to retire.

"It's very easy to paint the unions as the bad guys who are resisting budget cuts," she said. "But people forget a lot of the proposed concessions will hurt union members. There's no sentiment to give back hard-won gains, but at the same time there are some things that can be explored."