Labor activists question mayoral endorsement

News Analysis

NEW YORK — Labor activists are puzzled as to why a few important unions here have given their endorsement to incumbent Mayor Michael Bloomberg in the upcoming mayoral election. His tenure has been marked by bitter disputes with virtually all of the largest public sector unions in the city.

A case in point was the contract struggle with American Federation of State, City, and Municipal Employees District Council 37 (AFSCME DC 37), which represents over 120,000 city workers. Bloomberg’s administration left DC 37 workers without a contract for over two years, and at times walked away from negotiations.

Many in the labor movement saw the contract, which was finally signed in 2004, as a major setback for the union. It introduced something that had previously been unheard of for New York City public workers — a two-tier wage system. Under the contract, all new workers would be paid 15 percent less then current workers for their first two years on the job.

Nevertheless, to the surprise of many of its members and leaders, DC 37 endorsed Bloomberg. “It all seems based on forgetting the last two or three years of a mayor who was anti-labor, anti-even-negotiating, not just DC 37, but the teachers, police, firefighters, etc.,” an elected officer from one of the 52 locals making up DC 37 told the World.

The city’s teachers, represented by the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), have also felt the brunt of Bloomberg’s policies. UFT members — as well as parents and community members — are livid about the damage that he has done to the city’s education system. In place of local control by elected school boards, Bloomberg instituted a top-down system, headed by Chancellor Joel Klein, a businessman with no experience in education, who runs the schools like a for-profit corporation.

Teachers complain that they are not treated as professionals. New rules tell them what kind of movements to make, what to write on chalkboards and what kind of chairs to sit in.

Teachers have been working for over two years without a contract. They were furious when Bloomberg failed to honor his pledge to settle negotiations before the start of the school year.

“How ironic that the mayor uses the hard work of teachers to crow about the improvement in student test scores as he runs for re-election while refusing to engage in the work necessary to close on a contract for those very same teachers,” wrote UFT President Randi Weingarten in an op-ed piece published in several newspapers.

Weingarten noted that NYC class sizes are the highest in the state, and added, “Our teachers are paid the least in the region, 14 percent to 26 percent below teachers who have similar jobs in surrounding counties and towns.”

In New York Teacher, the UFT’s newspaper, Weingarten said that the city “continues to insist that UFT members accept a contract that adheres to the DC 37 settlement of 4 percent over three years. It is also pressing for the elimination of tenure and teacher transfer rights, the return of cafeteria duty and hall patrol.”

Other public unions in the city have fared no better under Bloomberg. The police union, after years without a contract, had to go into arbitration, and the firefighters’ union is battling the city as well, once again, after years without a contract.

AFSCME DC 1707, which represents city day care workers, won a contract in January, but this was after years of negotiations and fight back. The workers had no contract for four years, and had not had a pay raise since 2000.

DC 1707’s executive director, Raglan George, who, for months straight, carried on a daily protest outside of City Hall, said the contract was won after “after two strikes, a march across the Brooklyn Bridge, numerous protests at City Hall and tens of thousands of phone calls, letters and postcards calling for justice at the bargaining table.”

Bloomberg has also reached out of the public sector with policies that clash with the priorities of private sector unions. A major campaign undertaken by the Central Labor Council and community groups has been the Wal-Mart-Free NYC Coalition. But Bloomberg has publicly come out in support of Wal-Mart.