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Now that the sanitation workers have reached an agreement with the city, this contract round is nearly over, and it’s time for an assessment. In most ways, the round followed the blueprint crafted almost five decades ago at the beginning of New York’s 1975 fiscal crisis: pattern bargaining, wage and benefit packages that don’t keep up with inflation, and union powerlessness.
As usual, the city negotiated first with District Council 37, which it perceives as the municipal union with the least bargaining power. An indication of its previous failure was that DC37’s great “success” this time was dragging its lowest paid workers — including, for example, entry-level EMTs — up to just $18/hour (That’s less than what the City Council mandates that food delivery workers be paid by April 2025 before tips). There are job vacancies throughout DC37’s blue- and white-collar titles because the negotiated wage rates are too low, paying less than what potential job applicants perceive as the market rate — exactly the opposite of what a union is supposed to achieve. Perhaps DC37 workers need tip jars too.
As usual, the city dragged out negotiations, subjecting workers to a year or more of wage-freeze just as inflation spiked. That meant unions could entice ratification by dangling the prospect of a lump-sum retroactive payment. Then that was sweetened by a lump-sum bonus. So, a lot of money in the final packages came up front. And that distracted from the penury of the total wage increases.
As usual, contract negotiations were governed by the principle of pattern bargaining. Once a pattern is set, claims of higher salaries in Nassau and Westchester counties fall on deaf ears. During the de Blasio years, most unions got roughly the same money package, although it was often dressed up with changes to new hire wages and benefits, to make comparisons more difficult. Mayor Eric Adams returned to the slightly more variegated annual wage hikes of the Giuliani and Bloomberg years. So, DC 37 and the Teamsters got 3s, the uniformed services closer to 4s, and teachers and transit workers somewhere in between.
The packages are all long enough that Adams won’t have to bargain new contracts while he is running for re-election — the one circumstance that sometimes causes mayors to be more generous, if they feel like they need union endorsements. When Mike Bloomberg ran for his controversial third mayoral term in 2009, he was unusually generous — providing 4s to DC37 even as the economy was spiraling into the Great Recession — in return for its endorsement.
When the UFT failed to close its deal before the election, Bloomberg refused to give them the pattern they were “due.” That set the stage for years without a contract and the extraordinarily convoluted deal it ultimately made with de Blasio, in which retroactive money got parceled out over eight years, with the full amount only to those who remained on the job.
TWU Local 100 was smarter. It went to arbitration, and even in the midst of financial calamity, it got most of the DC37 pattern. That was an unusual case where demanding “the pattern” benefited workers. But arbitrator John Zuccotti, a long-time political insider, understood the importance of not disowning pattern bargaining, when 19 times out of 20, it helps the city and hurts unions.
Actually, this contract round is not yet over, because health benefits are still in flux and likely to be slashed. Health benefits are negotiated by the Municipal Labor Committee, where, because of weighted voting, DC37 and UFT can dictate an agreement. These two unions are still committed to the deal they made years ago with de Blasio to “find” health care savings in each contract round. At first, that was easy: purging ineligible workers and dependents. The next round was tougher: more and higher co-pays and deductibles, and methods to discourage utilizing medical care.
Then came the now-notorious fiasco of attempting to push retirees into a Medicare Advantage plan.
That scheme is for now stopped in court, but it’s less clear whether retired transit workers, who belong to a separate health plan, will be as successful in their opposition to a similar plan. Ironically, that’s because their health care right to “maintain the current level of benefits” is specifically written into their contract. Clearly, Medicare Advantage is a deterioration of those benefits. But as long as new Local 100 head Richard Davis affirms that the new plan complies with the contract, it may be difficult for a court to intervene.
Now, the MLC is in the midst of choosing a new health care provider for active members. Its joint “request for proposals” with the City mandated that the provider must commit to slashing current costs by 10 percent. Obviously, with all the easy savings already implemented this can’t be done without slashing current benefits. One potential source of savings is limiting provider choice to just one or a few of our five major medical/hospital networks, which will lower their fees somewhat in exchange for greater volume — semi-exclusive access to hundreds of thousands of workers. (In effect, this will be a great expansion of the current system in which workers must enroll in the HIP health maintenance organization during their first year on the job.) If this is the money-saving solution, thousands will have to find new doctors or fork out greatly increased co-pays and deductibles.
One final commonality with the past five decades is the widespread resignation of workers with mediocre contract settlements. What explains this? In part, it’s that most workers in most municipal unions simply have no experience of successful opposition to city demands. Compare that perspective to Chicago, where its militant teachers union showed other workers that activism pays off.
In a few rare cases when workers have sought to fight back, either the government or their own union leaders fiercely counter-attack, sending the message that “resistance is futile.” I’m thinking of transit workers, whose union was stripped of dues check-off after their 2005 strike. More recently, when the Occupational and Physical Therapists chapter of the UFT rejected their contract, UFT head Michael Mulgrew went ballistic, informing them that there would be no changes and mandating a new vote on the same terms. Of course, in those circumstances, it passed, with the leader of the chapter throwing up her hands and resigning.
That repugnant incident, though, points to workers’ most serious problem and the only way out of their dilemma. A half century of neoliberalism first molded a generation of union leaders who accepted the practice of concessions and complacency. They, in turn, groomed successors with no taste for militant unionism. In a sense this was like a backwards Darwinism, where only the weak found a comfortable niche and activists who attempted to revitalize their unions from inside were purged.
There’s no reason to believe the current leaders of the municipal unions will ever abandon their policies of conciliation. What we’ve seen elsewhere — in UAW and the UPS Teamsters, and among Chicago and Los Angeles teachers — is that the third step toward better wages and working conditions is to elect leaders committed to fighting management and, in the case of municipal employees, building support among the public for better services.
The first steps, of course, are to find those new leaders among the disenchanted rank-and-file, and to spread the message that apathy, resignation — and concessions — are not inevitable features of union life.
Marc Kagan is a Professional Staff Congress delegate, an adjunct lecturer and retired UFT member.
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