By Alex Davidson
Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s calls for concessions from municipal unions to help reduce the city’s budget gap and avoid layoffs has in recent weeks touched off an angry exchange with Queens union leaders.
Brian McLaughlin, the president of the Central Labor Council and a state assemblyman from Flushing, told attendees at a breakfast fund-raiser in May that Bloomberg’s failure to utilize the collective bargaining system may have closed the door on concessions which could have saved jobs.
“I think he has pretty much fallen prey to negotiating in the press rather than at the bargaining table,” McLaughlin said. “He said he was not a bully, but he had no problem bullying people who earn $30,000 a year.”
Bloomberg spokesman Jordan Barowitz placed the blame with the unions, saying said they have not been willing to bargain in good faith.
“They have yet to put forth any substantive proposal that saves the city money on a recurring basis,” Barowtiz said. “We need something that either increases our revenue or lowers our expenses.”
The city recently gave the pink slip to more than 2,000 city workers after failing to reach an agreement with municipal unions on concessions. Some of the layoffs were later restored after Bloomberg added $90.2 million to the budget.
City negotiators had called for municipal unions to provide $600 million in savings by loosening work rules, requiring workers to provide co-payments for health insurance, creating a more flexible pension plan and establishing a 40-hour work week. Municipal workers currently are on the job 35 hours per week.
BEnefits are a problem
A recent study by the independent Citizens Budget Commission report found that the financial obligation to provide pensions and other benefits to city workers had a significant contribution to the budget shortfall.
The nonpartisan fiscal watchdog agency reported that the average cost of employing a New York City municipal worker has risen to $82,722 annually because of a 90 percent jump in fringe benefits to $24,062 a year since 2000. It also revealed the city spends almost $6,000 per municipal worker on health insurance.
“Benefits expenses will have grown 15.6 percent for private sector workers and 14 percent for state and local government workers, while New York City employee benefits expenses will have grown 48.2 percent,” the report said.
The unions are willing
The commission supported Bloomberg’s call for worker health co-payments and the establishment of a 40-hour work weeks, calling them common practices among other federal, state and city employees.
But union officials maintain that Bloomberg was placing too heavy a burden on municipal unions and had not negotiated fairly with them.
Arthur Cheliotes, president of the Communications Workers of America Local 1180, said Bloomberg has avoided taxing the city’s richest population and thus alienated city workers from agreeing to further concessions.
The Bayside resident, who represents 7,000 city administrators and supervisors, said the unions were less inclined to work with the mayor after they watched him bow to Pataki’s and Bush’s wishes.
Cheliotes said the unions have met the mayor halfway by offering givebacks, but the mayor has rejected their attempts to come up with significant savings to the city’s budget. Cheliotes and McLaughlin said they could not reveal specifics of the unions’ proposed concessions because of ongoing negotiations.
“He (Bloomberg) has raised sales tax on toilet paper but did not consider restoring the tax on stock transfers,” Cheliotes said. “He instead chooses to burden working people with property taxes and sales taxes.”
The last major fiscal crisis in New York City occurred in 1975 when then Gov. Hugh Carey, a Democrat, put the city’s finances under state control.
As chairman of a seven-member board set up to guide the city away from near bankruptcy, Carey was able to freeze wages and negotiate concessions from unions by taking a leading role and explaining the necessity of such measures.
That role is missing in the current labor crisis, Cheliotes said.
“This governor has done nothing,” he said. “Instead he has tried to siphon off money from the Federal Emergency Management Administration and take away from Homeland Security funds.”
Randi Weingarten, chairwoman of the Municipal Labor Committee that represents all the city’s unions, had been in talks with the city May 16 to consider the mayor’s request for $600 million in union concessions.
Is the mayor doing enough?
McLaughlin said Bloomberg should have also better defined the city’s dire need for more aid from the state and federal governments after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks compounded the fallout from the slowing economy.
He said the Republican mayor’s combative attitude toward the city’s unions had made them unlikely to offer steep concessions after they watched Bloomberg’s unwillingness to battle fellow Republicans, Gov. George Pataki and President George W. Bush, for more city funds.
“The mayor chose détente with Pataki and Bush,” he said.
McLaughlin said the mayor’s decision to lay off 2,000 municipal workers would end up costing rather than saving the city money because certain employees generate funds for the city. He said the mayor was wrong to put 55 city assessors out of work for a savings of $1 million when they annually generate $1 billion a year in city income.
Bloomberg’s representative left one negotiating session, which ended in a stalemate, after the Municipal Labor Committee presented a proposal that included a $200 million loan from its pension.
Barowitz said the mayor rejected the offer of $200 million in pension fund loans at 8 percent interest from city unions because he believed that would only serve as a temporary solution and not solve the ongoing problem of the city’s high operating costs.
Barowitz said any workers’ concessions to the city should decrease the total cost of labor in the budget on a consistent basis.
He said city workers’ pensions will cost $2.7 billion for fiscal year 2004 that begins in July, a figure that will increase by $1 billion next year.
Barowitz said the mayor has proposed creating a central management agency for union health funds to streamline the distribution of workers’ benefits — a potential savings of $100 million.
Facing hard times
New York City is facing a $3.8 billion budget deficit, and Bloomberg has already trimmed an additional $3.3 billion from the city budget during the past year.
In addition to the sales tax, the mayor also increased the city’s property tax by 18.5 percent, and the state Legislature raised the income tax for individuals earning $100,000 and couples earning more than $150,000 after deductions.
Bloomberg has also had to cope with a $1.2 billion loss in tax revenues from a weak Wall Street, which accounts for one-third of the city’s total income, Barowitz said. The drop began in fiscal year 2001, when the city collected $2.8 billion in taxes from Wall Street, a figure that has now plummeted to $1.6 billion.
At a Memorial Day Parade in Laurelton, he said he did not want to lay off any more city workers and indicated he would consider raising workers’ wages if they agreed to increase productivity.
“We are open to anything as long as they save the city real money,” Barowitz said.
Reach reporter Alex Davidson by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 156