The New York Times

July 8, 2006

City Seeks Arbitration to Reach Pact With Police


With another round of police contract talks seriously stalled, the Bloomberg administration asked a state labor agency yesterday to appoint an arbitration panel to settle a long-running contract dispute with the city's largest police union, the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association.

James F. Hanley, the city's labor commissioner, said he saw little reason for the dispute to drag on when settlements have been reached with the firefighters and other uniformed unions, helping, he said, to set a pattern for the police to follow.

The call for arbitration highlights the tense relationship the administration has with the politically potent police union. The last round of talks ended in arbitration, and this time around the police have assailed the city over officers' low starting pay — $25,100 — and the slow pace of negotiations.

Eager to resolve the dispute, the city filed a petition yesterday with the state's Public Employment Relations Board, asserting that the negotiations had reached an impasse. City officials hope the board will certify that there is an impasse and will appoint a three-member arbitration panel that will issue a ruling on what the police union's contract should be.

"We've been bargaining with the P.B.A. for almost a year, but these negotiations haven't been fruitful," Mr. Hanley said. "We've settled almost every contract out there, and we felt this was the responsible thing to do. A lot of police officers are waiting for their raises."

But police union officials asserted that the city was not bargaining in good faith and was rushing toward arbitration without even waiting for the union's counteroffer.

The police union's last dispute was settled through an arbitration ruling that disappointed the city. Not only did the arbitrators give police officers a 10.25 percent raise over two years, but, as a money-saving measure, they also reduced starting pay for officers to such a low level that it has hurt efforts to recruit police officers.

In negotiations last week, the city proposed raising the starting salary to $37,800 and giving experienced police officers a raise averaging slightly more than 6 percent over two years — based on the pattern set by other uniformed unions.

The Bloomberg administration requested arbitration a day after city officials announced a tentative contract with the police lieutenants union, saying that it was undoubtedly better to settle contracts through bargaining than through arbitration.

Al O'Leary, a spokesman for the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, criticized the city's move, saying, "This is an administration that usually decries the use of PERB to settle contract stalemates."

In a news release yesterday, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg explained the change of heart. "I always believe that the best deals are reached when both sides sit down across the table, look each other in the eye, and negotiate in good faith," he said. "We would have liked to fix this through negotiations, but despite our efforts in a number of negotiating sessions with the P.B.A., we have simply not been able to do that."

The president of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, Patrick J. Lynch, said the city's move showed that the Bloomberg administration had no interest in negotiating in good faith.

Noting that the two sides last bargained on June 28, Mr. Lynch said: "Without even waiting to see the P.B.A.'s counteroffer, the city declares an impasse and tells the press about it before they inform the union. That outrageous behavior demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Bloomberg administration never had any intention of negotiating a fair contract with their grossly underpaid police officers."

The union's contract expired on Aug. 1, 2004. In a ruling that set the terms of that previous contract, the chairman of the arbitration panel, Eric J. Schmertz, responded to the union's pleas that its salaries were not competitive with suburban police salaries by awarding them a 10.25 percent raise over two years.

He said he would have favored granting raises of 20 percent if state law permitted arbitrators to award a contract longer than two years.

But Mr. Schmertz's ruling cut starting salaries in response to Mr. Bloomberg's insistence that raises be financed by money-saving measures, like the pattern-setting lower starting salary that District Council 37, the city's largest municipal union, had agreed to.

Officers' starting salary was reduced by 27 percent to $25,100, with it jumping to $32,700 after six months, then to $34,000 after one and a half years, to $38,000 after two and a half years and to $59,588 maximum after five and a half years.

Under the city's latest proposal, new hires would begin at $37,800, rising to $40,000 after six months, then to $41,885 after one and a half years, then to $43,770 after two and a half years, with a $63,309 maximum after five and a half years.

"More than seven weeks ago, we made an offer to the P.B.A. to drastically increase salaries for new hires and all police officers," said Mr. Hanley, the labor commissioner. "We have yet to hear back from them. One month after that, we increased our offer, and again have not heard back."

The city's offer would cut 10 vacation days a year and some other benefits during police officers' first five and a half years on the job.

Mr. O'Leary, the union spokesman, said the police union had not made a counteroffer because it was doing financial calculations. While the city asserts that negotiations should not be dragged out because a wage pattern has been set, Mr. O'Leary noted that the police union had broken the pattern before.

"The city's police officers deserve a substantial raise, well beyond the pattern, because their salaries remain far lower than the salaries in many nearby communities," he said.