“Twelve years of policies that favor the richest New Yorkers have failed the rest of us…. It’s time to turn things around.” That was the message of the Municipal Labor Committee (MLC), the coalition of New York City’s public-worker unions, in radio ads announcing a mass rally for fair contracts.
On June 12, thousands of public workers from more than a hundred unions filled Broadway as they rallied outside City Hall, demanding progress in contract negotiations. In every one of the City’s 152 bargaining units, union members have been working under expired contracts. The lack of agreements is a result of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s insistence that the City has little money for raises – and none for retroactive pay.
Bloomberg contends that retroactive raises for City employees are unaffordable, given the fiscal effects of the recession.
“The City’s position means that people would do the same work for less real income,” said PSC President Barbara Bowen. “No retroactive increases would leave public workers falling behind inflation.” When the mayor says there is no money for raises, he is not telling the whole story, Bowen told Clarion. “The reason his ledger shows no money for raises is that he chose not to budget for them, even while the City ran multibillion-dollar surpluses year after year.”
Speaking at the rally, Bowen told the crowd, “This is about developing our power together, the power to win a fair contract for each of us.” The demonstration, she said, is a first step: “This is the beginning of the fight.”
The PSC negotiates its contract with CUNY management, not New York City – but any settlement requires approval from both the City and the State. So, contracts for PSC members are linked to those of other public workers, as CUNY’s bargaining position is influenced by the City’s negotiations with other unions.
Fair raises for NYC’s public workers are largely a matter of political will, Bowen told Clarion. “The City has had multibillion-dollar surpluses for several years,” she pointed out, although the Bloomberg administration regularly predicted a deficit. “The City decided not to include funds for workers’ salary increases in its budget, and now it declares that New York can’t afford pay increases. We are witnessing the creation of austerity.”
‘Plenty of Money’
Other labor leaders raised the same theme. “Each year there’s been a surplus,” said Harry Nespoli, head of the Sanitation Workers Union and chair of the Municipal Labor Committee, yet Bloomberg stonewalled in negotiations. “He [Bloomberg] just didn’t want to settle the contracts.”
“It’s unconscionable,” said PSC member Ron Hayduk, professor of political science at Queens College. “There’s plenty of money. The 1% control this town, but we are the ones who make it run. And we are not going to pay for a crisis that we did not create.” While the Bloomberg administration maintains that the recession has left it unable to afford raises, Hayduk pointed out that the mayor has opposed any additional taxes on the richest New Yorkers. “I hope labor itself will feel its power today,” said Hayduk, surveying the large and diverse crowd.
Stuart Chen-Hayes, associate professor of counselor education at Lehman College, says he needs a raise. From the costs of raising his son to higher bridge-and-tunnel fees on the commute from his New Jersey home, his expenses are rising. “The cost of living goes up, and my bank account goes down,” he told Clarion.
Olga Steinberg, an associate professor of biology at Hostos Community College, agreed. “Goldstein is given $300,000 to be ‘chancellor emeritus,’ and the college presidents get their raises – but not the workers, the faculty, the HEOs, the CLTs,” Steinberg said.
“We work so hard educating the young people of New York City,” said Leslie deGiere, a CLIP teacher at Bronx Community College, “and to be treated this way is unacceptable.”
Winning a new contract is “the number-one issue on HEOs’ minds,” said Paul Washington, vice chair of the PSC’s Higher Education Officer Chapter and an associate HEO at Medgar Evers College. Working under an expired agreement “is demoralizing for HEOs working 12 months a year.”
“The fact that Bloomberg hasn’t settled any contracts is an evasion of his responsibility as mayor,” Washington told Clarion. “He’s trying to shift this to the next mayor, and that’s not right.” Washington panned the mayor’s demand that municipal workers pay for a chunk of their health insurance premiums, which are currently covered by the employer. “He’s paying off all the private consultants, while asking teachers and firefighters and other public workers to pay more.”
The administration’s spending on private contractors was a frequent target for union leaders who spoke at the June 12 rally. “Rather than paying City workers, this mayor has hired high-priced consultants under contracts that give them cost-of-living increases of 3% to 7% annually,” said District Council 37 Executive Director Lillian Roberts. “Some of these contracts have been marked by fraud [or] incompetence – the 911 system is the most recent example.”
“CityTime, they flushed a billion dollars down the toilet. The 911 system: another billion dollars, thrown away,” said Uniformed Firefighters Association President Steve Cassidy. “They say they don’t have money for us? Stop throwing money away.”
PSC member Andrew Parker, assistant professor of math at City Tech, said that rallying together with other public unions was an eye-opening experience. “I didn’t realize so many public agencies had expired contracts just like we do,” he told Clarion. “We’re all in the same situation.” Bloomberg’s failure to settle outstanding contracts is inexcusable, he said: “You create this problem, and then you run from it.” Meanwhile, he added, too many public employees “can’t afford to live in the city they are serving.”
Bill Smith, an adjunct lecturer in philosophy at College of Staten Island, attended with his wife –a member of the United Federation of Teachers – and their grown son. The different City unions need to come together more often, said Smith: “It’s important for workers to stand up, because they are being pushed around.”
Bloomberg’s decision to budget zero dollars for retroactive raises will be a problem for the next mayor. Some observers say that while Bloomberg has run surpluses in past years, his strategy now is to “empty the cupboard,” thus making it harder for a liberal successor to be more liberal in labor agreements.
MLC Chair Harry Nespoli said that while unions are prepared to be flexible, money for retroactive pay is a must. “We want to sit down and bargain in good faith,” Nespoli told the Daily News. “There are ways for retroactive money to be paid without it coming out in a big lump sum.”
Many speakers urged workers to make sure to register and vote. With former Rudy Giuliani aide Joe Lhota and supermarket billionaire John Catsimatidis both backing Bloomberg’s hard line against retro pay, there were many voices raised against returning another Republican to City Hall. But rally participants also said that whoever the next mayor is, unions will have to mobilize to win what they deserve.
“Do you know why you don’t see any politicians on this stage?” asked correction officers union head Norman Seabrook. “Because this is our rally. Yes, Bloomberg is going to be out of office – but we’ve got to set the stage for the next mayor.”
Alex Wolf, assistant professor of biology at BCC said that the city’s elite “are very good at getting workers to blame other workers.” Public and private sector workers are often pitted against each other, or union vs. non-union workers, or native-born citizens vs. immigrants. “This event shows we have to be organized together,” said Wolf. “It shows the numbers we have, and the power we could have” when united.
After the election, said PSC member Hayduk, “There’s going to be pressure on the new mayor to make unions suck it up.” The finance industry and real estate interests, and the policy groups they fund, will denounce any suggestion that City workers deserve a raise, Hayduk said. “But that’s all the more reason that our side has to organize.”