January 8, 2014
By Joe Maniscalco
New York, NY – Dealing with the stack of outstanding municipal contracts that former Mayor Mike Bloomberg left in his wake may be one of the most daunting challenges facing the new administration – but labor observers remain enthusiastic about a positive outcome now that it looks like public sector employees will no longer be "demonized."
"That's an important difference," said Gene Carroll, co-director of the NYS AFL-CIO/Cornell Union Leadership Institute. "That sets a whole different tone – both in terms of what goes on at the bargaining table, and how people feel about their work."
According to Carroll, the former billionaire mayor had no qualms about exploiting the fiction that corporate interests and the rest of the right wing invented to hoist the nation's economic woes on the backs of municipal workers.
In contrast, Bob Linn – in accepting his new role as director of Labor Relations under Mayor Bill de Blasio – praised New York City's municipal workers as the "finest in the world," and vowed to repair the damage done under the previous administration.
"We are going to reset the relationship between this city and the men and women who serve it," Linn said. "It will be based on honesty and respect, and a shared commitment to making this city work."
Special Advisor Stanley Brezenoff, meanwhile, welcomed the challenges involved in trying to hammer out a deal with 300,000 city workers who have not had a raise in years, resulting in estimated losses between $6 and $7 billion.
“It won’t be easy, but this will be a progressive and effective administration that protects taxpayers and respects its workers," Brezenoff said.
The positive vibes that the de Blasio administration has purposely sent out have been met with enthusiasm among guarded city labor leaders.
"Labor has reasonable expectations, and we look forward to negotiating the issues in a fair way at the bargaining table," said Cara Noel, communications director for the New York City Central Labor Council.
Exactly how the actual negotiating process proceeds from here remains unclear, but Carroll theorizes that the city might want to create a scenario involving "pattern bargaining" where a mutually agreed upon deal with a certain sector of union workers could subsequently be replicated with others.
"Whatever union, or group of unions that is, that's pretty significant because they will have set a pattern," Carroll said. "That's going to be a strategic question for the unions, but also for the city as well."
Even in an atmosphere of shared responsibility and respect, finding $6 to $7 billion to make up for all the years municipal workers went without a contract under former Mayor Bloomberg, might be a tall order. If that is, indeed, the case, Carroll believes there may be other types of adjustments that could be made in terms of benefits, vacation time and work rules that could contribute to mutually beneficial contracts.
"The city might also agree to a one-time cash payment – sort of a signing bonus," Carroll said. "That will cost the city money, but it would probably cost the city less money than if they raised wages going back a few years."
However contract negotiations actually play out, Carroll predicts some very hard bargaining ahead in which both sides are going to have to remain flexible.
"But if you're not demonizing the workforce, it creates an atmosphere where people can agree to disagree, but eventually come to an [overall] agreement," Carroll said.
In his inaugural address, Mayor de Blasio invoked the legacy of the late Fiorello La Guardia and characterized New York City as a town that "fights injustice and inequality."
"The unions want to support [Mayor] de Blasio because he's the guy who cares about working people," Carroll added. "And he's the guy who cares about economic equity. I think it's in the interests of unions to have him be a successful mayor. And I think he wants to be a successful mayor earning and winning the good will of workers."