NYC unions face tough contract struggles

News Analysis

NEW YORK CITY – The latest news on the labor scene here was the April 21 announcement of a contract settlement between government workers represented by AFSCME, DC 37 and the city of New York. The 121,000 DC 37 workers had been without a contract for two years.

DC 37 Executive Director Lillian Roberts said she believed union negotiators had hammered out the best possible agreement. However there is dissatisfaction with aspects of the deal. The most troubling aspect is that raises the contract provides are to be funded by a 15 percent cut in pay for new hires, along with the loss of some sick time, holidays and night differential during their first two years of employment.

A budget deficit was alleged during the negotiations, but once they concluded a surplus was announced. There was no material basis for the give-backs.

Despite misgivings, it is likely that the DC 37 rank and file will approve the contract, which provides for a $1,000 flat payment in the first year, a 3 percent raise in the second year and 2 percent in the third year.

NYC Mayor Bloomberg and NYC Labor Relations Commissioner James Hanley have stated their intention to use the DC 37 agreement as a model for other settlements. They are insisting that wage increases be funded by give-backs. Indeed, the effect of the deal on other city workers has already been seen. Several unions representing NYC workers have, reluctantly, accepted deals that mirror the DC 37 pact.

However, teachers, police, and firefighters have made it clear that they will not be bound by the pattern of the DC 37 contract. United Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said the DC 37 settlement was unique to DC 37’s own members and would in no way meet the needs of teachers or students. Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch and Uniformed Firefighters Association President Stephen Cassidy have said that a two-tier wage structure would be unacceptable.

Why did the DC 37 negotiations produce a less then satisfactory outcome? Some trade unionists suggest the lack of labor unity – in bargaining strategy and contract demands, coupled with a lack of mass mobilization, was a big part of the reason. Unions representing city workers should have agreed to hold out together to put pressure on the city to settle. Unfortunately the lack of inter-union coordination precluded any such grand strategy.

DC 37 members, rank-and-filers and leaders alike, were desperate and isolated after working without a contract for two years and felt that any settlement was better then nothing. It is also likely that a recent divisive union election had some effect.

The overriding conclusion is whatever threatens unity weakens the position of workers relative to management.

A very encouraging development is what the UFT is calling a “massive show of solidarity.” Teachers will be joining police and firefighters for a joint mass rally for fair contracts in front of City Hall on June 8. The PBA has also reiterated its intention to rally with other unions at the site of the Republican National Convention, despite Bloomberg’s expressions of disapproval.

Gary Bono is a trade union activist in New York City. He can be reached at gamoo@compuserve.com.