The New York Times

June 23, 2006

Unions Seek Joint Bargaining With City


Sixteen labor unions that represent about half of New York City's municipal work force have formed a coalition to bargain on wages and benefits, a move intended to strengthen their leverage and speed negotiations.

But the city's labor commissioner said last night that he might not negotiate with such a coalition, partly because the unions are covered by different laws.

The unions, which plan to announce their coalition today, include the United Federation of Teachers and unions representing the city's sanitation workers, middle managers, Housing Authority guards and community college professors.

Union leaders say the coalition aims to neutralize a strategy that Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and other mayors have used in the past — to negotiate a contract with one union and then pressure others to follow that pattern.

The unions formed the coalition after many labor leaders voiced unhappiness two years ago when Mr. Bloomberg negotiated a pattern-setting contract with District Council 37, the largest municipal union, that called for a one-year wage freeze and other concessions.

A major shortcoming of the coalition, union leaders acknowledge, is that District Council 37 has refused to join, but they still hope it will. The police and fire unions have also refused to join, traditionally taking the position that with the prestige and public support they enjoy, they can strike a better deal on their own.

"It's better to be in a coalition because that way everybody has a say in the final agreement, rather than be stuck with a pattern," said the president of one union in the coalition, Carl Haynes of Teamsters Local 237, which represents 24,000 employees working for the city, its public hospitals and its housing authority. "The way the city is operating they would like to pick off one union and apply the pattern. This coalition should help inoculate us against that."

The city's labor commissioner, James F. Hanley, said he was unsure that he would bargain with the coalition, sounding offended that union leaders had not told him of their plans.

"This is the first official notice I have of it," he said in an interview late yesterday. "I'm not sure how to approach it. I have to know exactly what it looks like, what it sounds like and what the ground rules are."

He said joint bargaining would be difficult, if not impossible, because not all coalition members — like City University professors and nurses in public hospitals — are covered by same laws.

"Some of these people are not city employees," Mr. Hanley said. "Some things you cannot bargain in this kind of forum."

Randi Weingarten, president of the teachers' union, said many union leaders felt urgency to form a coalition because the Bloomberg administration was seeking far-reaching concessions on health benefits and pensions. She has long argued that the city should negotiate such far-reaching changes with all municipal unions, not just one union.

She held out hope that District Council 37 would join the coalition, which includes about 180,000 workers.

"It would be terrific if D.C. 37 joins us," Ms. Weingarten said. "It would show how unified the municipal work force is. It would send the message that the city can't divide us any longer."

Rudy Orozco, a district council spokesman, said, "At this time, D.C. 37 is in bargaining with the City of New York, so a coalition would not be appropriate."

The coalition is partly a response to widespread grumbling among municipal workers that their wages have hardly kept up with inflation in recent years.

Forming the coalition involves some complex union calculations. Many smaller unions want to piggyback on the mighty teachers' union, which bargains for 80,000 teachers. And the teachers' union sees advantages to bargaining alongside smaller unions, trying to avoid having the city pick one of them to set a pattern.

Harry Nespoli, president of the union representing 6,500 sanitation workers, said he hoped that joining the coalition would make it less likely that unions have to wait years after their contract expires to negotiate a new one.

"The advantage is that we hopefully can get a contract for our members on time," said Mr. Nespoli, who negotiated his current contract nearly three years after the previous one expired. "Many members had to wait a long time for their money, and our families have to eat every day."

Explaining his union's decision not to join, Patrick J. Lynch, president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, said, "Coalition bargaining is fine for unions that have similar needs." But he asserted that his union was in a different situation because the city's police officers were not receiving salaries comparable to their counterparts in nearby cities and suburbs.

"Given that inequity and the worsening recruitment and retention problem, we believe that we have a unique set of circumstances that would not be well represented in coalition bargaining," Mr. Lynch said.

The coalition will have five co-chairmen. Approving a proposal will require support of three of the co-chairmen as well as two-thirds of the unions in the coalition.

Nearly taunting the unions, Mr. Hanley said that the first time the city's municipal unions formed a bargaining coalition was to negotiate wage concessions during the 1975 fiscal crisis.

"I wonder if that's what they want to talk about here," he said.