May 19, 2005

An Anxious City Awaits Police Salary Decision

Staff Reporter of the Sun

It's been nearly nine months since a little-known state board ordered the police officers union and the city to binding arbitration to settle their dispute over pay hikes behind closed doors.

The two sides have sat through 14 days of testimony, made oral arguments, and submitted briefs and rebuttals on the case.

Now, with the hearings over and the three-member panel in deliberations, the leaders of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, and of other municipal unions, are anxiously awaiting a decision.

The imminent ruling has city officials, too, on pins and needles, because it will not only determine raises for police officers, but it also could serve as a benchmark for other politically influential unions whose contract negotiations with the Bloomberg administration have been deadlocked for more than two years.

"Everybody's waiting for the PBA award," the president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, Stephen Cassidy, said. "The administration knows that firefighters and police officers have parity.

"Whatever they get, we think that if it's favorable, it's something that we can negotiate with the city," he said.

The head of the United Teachers Federation, Randi Weingarten, said she, too, is waiting.

As have her counterparts in the police and fire unions, she has argued that members' salaries in the five boroughs, which for teachers range between $39,000 and $81,232 a year, are not comparable to pay in Westchester, Nassau, and Suffolk counties. Just north of the city in White Plains, for example, first-year teachers make $43,993 and the salary ceiling is $104,841.

Though several smaller unions and the city have settled, the teachers, firefighters, police officers, sanitation workers, and related smaller unions rejected the contract Mayor Bloomberg struck in April 2004 with District Council 37, an umbrella organization that represents 121,000 municipal workers in 56 unions.

That contract calls for a one-time $1,000 payment and raises of 3% and 2% in the second and third years of the contract. An additional 1% raise is tied to "productivity savings," such as fewer sick days.

Mr. Bloomberg has said the city cannot afford to dole out more than that for other unions. In March he said on his weekly radio show that if arbitrators ordered an "enormous settlement," it could "bankrupt the city."

Yet, with the mayor's latest budget showing a $3.2 billion surplus, union leaders said the city should fix long-term "pay disparity" problems.

The PBA is demanding a 30% pay increase for police officers over a two-year contract - a far cry from the DC 37 contract that the city has put on the table.

The union has repeatedly said the city police should be paid the same as officers at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The average pay for police officers is $59,430, compared to $83,022 at the Port Authority and even higher salaries in surrounding counties.

The mayor went to pains in his budget presentation earlier this month to point out that despite the surplus, the city has budget gaps in the future and is not out of the woods. That answer, however, does not appease labor leaders.

"Every year at budget time they start saying there is a huge deficit and that the city is broke," the PBA president, Patrick Lynch, said. "They always plead poverty. This year they have a balanced budget and a surplus."

"The reason they have that surplus is because people feel safe in the city of New York because the foot soldiers on the war on crime and terrorism - the police officers - make them feel safe," Mr. Lynch said.

The mayor's most recent budget sets aside almost $2 billion for the next three fiscal years for additional costs associated with union contracts. That figure, the union leaders said, does not make allowances for adequate pay increases, and they are hoping the pending PBA decision will change that calculus.

"I think it's going to set a different benchmark than the DC-37 contract," Ms. Weingarten said of the yet-to-be announced decision. Her union is beginning nonbinding mediation with the city.

She scoffed at the city's attempt to force it to acquiesce to the DC-37 "pattern." And leaders of all of the unions have criticized the mayor's signature approach of demanding "productivity savings." The mayor has characterized those savings as fat-trimming that make the city's labor force more efficient.

In 2002, a state panel awarded the PBA an 11.75% raise over 24 months - rather than over the 30 months that the city had proposed. That result had varying impacts on the other unions. It helped the firefighters union, but did not do much for the others.

Nonetheless, the mayor has already learned how politically sensitive labor negotiations can be. Last year he was dogged by both police officers and firefighters who painted him as a billionaire business executive who had no concept of their struggles. Though he stood his ground last year, his re-election campaign is now in full gear. The idea of daily protests, and more ammunition for four Democratic challengers who are already breathing fire at him, is surely unappealing.

"The mayor has several unions hanging out there that he has not come to closure with, "a political consultant who advises a number of unions, Scott Levenson, said. "The UFT and the PBA are particularly big prizes, which, if he wants to win re-election, will have to be settled."

A spokesman for the mayor, Jordan Barowitz, declined to comment yesterday, on the grounds that the arbitration decision was pending. The city has not given any signs of what it would consider a fair settlement.

Leaders in the labor community, however, said they expected that the independent panel handling the case for the state Public Employment Relations Board would favor the PBA. The decision was originally expected in April. PBA officials said they hope to hear by the end of next month.