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August 7, 2017

Editorial: Uniformed Sound and Fury


When a five-year contract was reached with the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association at the end of January, it appeared that Mayor de Blasio had eliminated the last obstacle for labor peace as he prepared his run for re-election.

But as the weather has heated up, a couple of bonfires have been sparked that over the past three weeks have brought some old rivalries to the surface, with City Hall caught in the middle of a battle that pits PBA President Pat Lynch against other uniformed-union leaders. It’s unlikely to have their members stalking the Mayor outside the Park Slope YMCA, but it has produced a lawsuit and some bickering that intruded right at the point that some of the unions involved passed the expiration points of the contracts at issue.

The key element in reaching the PBA deal—after the union had balked through one angry arbitration and numerous fruitless bargaining sessions over the city’s insistence that its terms match those reached by the other uniformed unions—was an additional 2.25-percent raise for incumbent officers that was paid for by shrinking the salaries for each step on the pay scale prior to reaching maximum for those who hadn’t yet been hired. That giveback at the expense of the “unborn” meant that the cost of the deal to the city was no greater than what it incurred from the other union pacts, which had provided 11 percent in raises over seven years.

Including the 2015 PBA arbitration award, that union’s raises for cops already on the job totaled 13.25 percent for seven years, with the difference made up on what the city will save as new officers receive significantly less in salary on their way to reaching top pay after 5½ years. But while the math checks out—and wasn’t disputed at the time the PBA deal was reached by Captains’ Endowment Association President Roy Richter, who chaired the Superior Officers Coalition that included most of the uniformed unions in its December 2014 contract—that extra 2.25 percent raised some hackles in the ranks.

The PBA several times in the past structured its contracts to get more money for incumbent cops to the detriment of those not yet hired, noting that it was not obligated to bargain in the best interests of people it didn’t yet represent.

Pressure from members of the other uniformed unions forced their leaders to try to obtain the same terms for their incumbents, which more often than not required them to trim the pay scales for their future members. That historically offered a short-term benefit for them politically that came with a price down the road, once those suffering under the reduced pay scale became numerous enough to vote out the incumbents who agreed to those terms.

Similar pressure undoubtedly accounted for the lawsuit filed last month by the coalition accusing the city of breaking a promise that it would not give the PBA contract terms exceeding those in its pact. But since the city can point to the equal cost for the two deals, notwithstanding the higher raises for PBA incumbents, it’s hard to see how the coalition will get satisfaction from the courts.

But statements in the court papers led Mr. Lynch last week to tell his members that those unions had revealed what he long suspected: that they had “conspired” with the city to essentially limit raises available to Police Officers.

This, too, is hardly earth-shattering. Mayors have long lived by “pattern bargaining,” under which they try to use the first settlement of a bargaining round to set the terms for everyone else. The PBA is one of the two unions that have objected most strongly to this.

In fact, Mr. Lynch a dozen years ago persuaded fellow uniformed-union leaders to hold off on making deals until he came to terms with the Bloomberg administration, arguing he could set the best pattern for everyone. But when talks reached an impasse, he went into arbitration and came out with two five-percent raises but had to pay for them by gutting the pay scale for new officers, most notably by reducing starting pay by more than $10,000. The anger the other uniformed unions felt over having to contort themselves to get the same raises while making painful concessions explains why those unions have been unwilling since to wait on the PBA.

And so the flurry of angry words should be taken for what it is: frustration that the unions are often at odds with each other’s goals, which ultimately gives the city some bargaining leverage.