[Marxism] For de Blasio, Contract Talks Offer Problem

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Nov 12 06:10:07 MST 2013

NY Times November 11, 2013
For de Blasio, Contract Talks Offer Problem

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has promised all sorts of assistance to ease 
Bill de Blasio’s transition, but the mayor has nonetheless bequeathed 
one particularly thorny, potentially explosive issue to his successor: 
New York City’s 300,000 municipal workers are angry that their contracts 
expired years ago, and they are demanding more than $7 billion in 
retroactive pay to make up for their years without a regular raise.

It could prove devilishly difficult for Mr. de Blasio — long a favorite 
of the city’s unions — to deliver even a small part of what labor 
leaders are demanding because the city faces an anticipated $2 billion 
deficit next year. This poses a quandary for Mr. de Blasio, fiscal 
experts say — if he gives billions in retroactive pay to the unions, 
that means he might have to cut spending on schools, the police or 
parks, or face a harder time financing his cherished plans for universal 

When Mr. Bloomberg was pushing for low — or no — wage increases in union 
negotiations several years ago, labor leaders walked away from the 
bargaining, convinced that they would get a better deal from whoever was 
elected the next mayor. But now it appears that the union chiefs may 
have miscalculated, because after years without a contract, they are 
asking Mr. de Blasio for a large amount of retroactive wage increases 
that he simply may not be able to pay.

“The municipal unions made a decision that they would rather wait for 
the next mayor than try to resolve their contracts with Mayor 
Bloomberg,” said Carol Kellermann, president of the Citizens Budget 
Commission, a business-backed fiscal watchdog. “O.K., now they have 
their new mayor. They’re asking him for a lot of money, no matter how 
you slice it, but nobody thinks that amount of money is available.”

Mr. de Blasio faces a huge challenge, she said, because of the workers’ 
pent-up frustrations as well as the logistical ordeal of negotiating 
agreements with the city’s 152 bargaining units, all of them with 
expired contracts.

The United Federation of Teachers, which has been without a contract 
since 2009, asserts its members are owed the same 4 percent raises that 
other municipal unions received back in 2008. That would translate into 
more than $3 billion in retroactive pay, while the Patrolmen’s 
Benevolent Association, which represents 23,000 police officers, is 
seeking $500 million in back pay.

“There has to be retroactive pay,” said Harry Nespoli, the president of 
the Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association and chairman of the Municipal 
Labor Committee, the umbrella group for municipal unions. “We’ve been 
working too long without a contract. Our members have had to use credit 
cards to pay their bills.”

A top de Blasio aide declined to comment, saying the mayor-elect would 
not negotiate in the news media. During his campaign, Mr. de Blasio 
expressed an openness to some degree of back pay for workers, but said 
full retroactive raises would not be possible.

“There’s no way in the world to pay out the full amount — that’s 
estimated as much as $7 to $8 billion, and that’s impossible to find,” 
Mr. de Blasio said in the campaign’s final debate, on Oct. 30. He added, 
“If they want to talk about retroactive pay, that’s their right, but 
they have to show us the cost savings to go with it.”

Mr. Bloomberg, the Citizens Budget Commission and others see retroactive 
pay as a luxury, an unnecessary bonus the city can ill afford. They 
maintain that the city’s workers already make a good living even without 
raises in recent years. And they point out that some city workers, most 
notably teachers, have continued to get annual step raises to recognize 
their increased seniority, so their actual take-home pay has increased. 
A deputy mayor, Caswell F. Holloway IV, also argued that municipal 
workers should be grateful that Mr. Bloomberg, unlike many other mayors, 
avoided sizable layoffs, even during the worst recession since the Great 

But municipal workers complain that they have gone two, three, four 
years without raises, causing their salaries to fall behind inflation, 
and they argue that the city has a moral obligation to compensate them 
for the years without a raise.

It is no secret that the unions look forward to dealing with Mr. de 
Blasio instead of Mr. Bloomberg. “The city just finished another banner 
year with a major surplus, and when it comes to what the mayor says 
about the teachers’ union and how he treats the workers of New York 
City, I find him to be disgusting,” said Michael Mulgrew, president of 
the teachers’ union.

But Joshua B. Freeman, a labor historian at City University of New York, 
said Mr. de Blasio was less beholden to municipal unions than many might 
think. In the Democratic primary for mayor, the only municipal union 
that endorsed him was the one representing City University professors. 
The largest municipal union, District Council 37, endorsed the mayoral 
candidacy of the city comptroller, John C. Liu, while the teachers 
backed the candidacy of a former comptroller, William C. Thompson Jr. 
Mr. de Blasio had the coveted endorsement of 1199/SEIU, the giant health 
care union, but that union does not represent city workers.

“One thing the new mayor has going for him is almost no municipal unions 
back him until after the primary,” Mr. Freeman said. “That might give 
him a little latitude.”

Mr. de Blasio also might benefit, Mr. Freeman said, because the 
mayor-elect has been a longtime friend of labor, giving him more 
credibility when he argues that the financial cupboard is bare.

“The union leadership are grown-ups; they understand he can’t give them 
everything they want,” Mr. Freeman said. “On the other hand, they expect 
things to be different than under Bloomberg.”

The Bloomberg administration notes that the city’s labor costs have 
climbed even while the unions have not received regular raises. 
Administration officials say the city’s contributions to its pension 
funds have soared to $8.2 billion this year, from $1.5 billion in 2002, 
while its health care outlays rose to $6.3 billion, from $2.7 billion. 
And every percentage point raise for the city’s 300,000 municipal 
workers costs about $300 million.

Labor leaders assert that there is plenty of money for retroactive pay 
because of what they say are past budget surpluses and 
larger-than-anticipated tax revenues. The Bloomberg administration 
disputes that. “The notion that there isn’t a deficit or there aren’t 
gaps in the budgets — those are real problems,” Mr. Holloway said. 
“There’s no magic hidden pot of money.”

Mr. Nespoli said that the municipal unions did not cut off bargaining 
with Mr. Bloomberg in the hope of getting a better deal from his 
successor. He said the mayor made a take-it-or-leave it offer for a 
multiyear pay freeze while asking workers to pay more for health coverage.

“They said they couldn’t offer more than that,” he said. “All the unions 
said that’s not negotiating.”

Mr. Holloway disagreed, saying that even when the unions had objections 
to the city’s proposals, “there was no willingness to negotiate or make 
a counteroffer.”

David L. Gregory, executive director of the Center for Labor and 
Employment Law at St. John’s University School of Law, predicted that 
Mr. de Blasio would agree to some retroactive pay, although perhaps not 
a full loaf. “I don’t think anyone expects it to be paid in a one-time 
payment over the next couple of months,” he said. “It will probably be 
part of some innovative, multiyear arrangement.”

Thomas Kaplan contributed reporting.

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