Sun
April 10, 2003

UNIONS TORN OVER LAYOFFS

Leaders Opposed, But See Worse Alternatives

By BENJAMIN SMITH
Staff Reporter of the Sun

Top city labor leaders will gather on the steps of City Hall today to denounce Mayor Bloomberg’s layoffs, but some union chiefs say they would prefer job cuts to losing benefits, expanding working hours, or paying more for health care.

Mr. Bloomberg has presented labor leaders with a choice: Come up with $600 million in savings for the city or face some 12,000 layoffs. But labor leaders argue that jobs can be won back, while contractual gains or pension benefits are gone forever.

The labor leaders’ stance is proving a major stumbling block in Mr. Bloomberg’s quest to cut spending without reducing services.

Increased efficiency and productivity are basically the only way to do that, and Mr. Bloomberg assumed, first in this year’s budget, and then in next year’s, that the threat of layoffs would bring those gains out of the 250,000 person workforce.

Meanwhile, state help to the city is uncertain. Yesterday, Mr. Bloomberg penned a pleading letter to Governor Pataki and other Albany leaders, asking them to reinstate a commuter tax.

"It is not too late to ameliorate the harsh choices we face," Mr. Bloomberg wrote. Also yesterday, Mr. Pataki said he is "looking at" Mr. Bloomberg’s plan to put tolls on East River bridges, something he ruled out on the campaign trail.

With no outside help at hand, the mayor is turning the heat up on labor, announcing this week that he would cut 5,401 jobs, many of them in the Department of Education. But his pressure is being met with defiance on the central question of concessions.

"We’ve been polling our members on this, and the overwhelming number one is to hold fast — no givebacks," says Arthur Cheliotes, the president of Communications Workers of America Local 1180.

The union represents about 7,800 mid-level administrators, including 89 civilian supervisors at the Fire Department and the Administration for Children’s Services slated for firing.

Hard as layoffs are for the workers affected, they will present a complicated choice for labor leaders, particularly for the president of the main municipal workers’ union, Lillian Roberts.

For one thing, fired workers go immediately on to agencies’ "rehire lists," and get priority when jobs open up over time.

There is also the question of unions’ internal politics.

"Members who are laid off aren’t on the voting rolls anymore, so they can’t vote against you," said one municipal union official. "But if you cut every body’s pay by $1,200, everybody remembers."

Other union leaders say that since Mr. Bloomberg began referring to layoffs as "inevitable," they have little incentive to offer concessions.

"If I do the $600 million and we’re going to have layoffs anyway, why would I do the $600 million ?" asked Carl Haynes, president of Teamsters local 237, which represents 20,000 workers at a range of city agencies.

The logic of accepting layoffs rather than agreeing to contractual concessions comes in part as a reaction to the fiscal crisis of the 1970s.

"In the 1970s we gave back huge amounts in terms of pension money, in terms of vacation time, and we agreed to lag the payroll — and then they laid off 5,000 cops anyway," said Al O’Leary, the spokesman for Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynch.

"In the final analysis, the city double-crossed us, and we’re not going to let that happen again."

Mr. Bloomberg has not yet even threatened police layoffs, but his police commissioner, Ray Kelly, said yesterday he didn’t "know for certain" whether the Police Academy would even have a class this summer.

Labor leaders last week offered the city an alternative to the mayor’s $600 million in cuts, including a plan to borrow $300 million against union pension funds. A few days later, Mr. Bloomberg announced the wave of layoffs.

A city official dismissed the union plan. "We can borrow at a better rate without them," the official said.