De Blasio, a Pro-Labor Mayor, Is Sued Over Bargaining Tactics
Posted January 31, 2018 5:36 p.m. EST
NEW YORK — When Mayor Bill de Blasio took office in January 2014, none of the city’s 152 unions, representing more than 337,000 employees, were under contract.
By May 2016, only 1 percent of the city’s unionized employees were without a contract. The unions received considerable wage increases; the city, in turn, negotiated $3.4 billion in health care savings over four years.
One holdout was the New York City District Council of Carpenters — one of three unions that did not reach new deals. With negotiations at a standstill, the de Blasio administration played hardball: The Office of Labor Relations reduced the carpenters’ paid time off to almost nothing, down from a combined 39 vacation and sick days, and ended annuity payments.
The action, according to even some of de Blasio’s strongest union supporters, violated long-standing labor protections and threatened to set a precedent that could give the city more leverage during negotiations, at a time when more than half of the union contracts have expired.
“If they get away with this with the carpenters, they will try this on everybody,” said Harry Nespoli, chairman of the Municipal Labor Committee, a coalition of about 150 city unions, and head of the Uniformed Sanitation Men’s Association. “This is not just an attack on the carpenters’ union, it’s an attack on hundreds of unions.”
The carpenters have sued the city last year in state Supreme Court in Queens, and both the Municipal Labor Committee, which negotiates health care deals for city unions, and Transport Workers Union Local 100, which negotiates its contracts with the state, have filed amicus briefs on behalf of the carpenters’ union.
“It has to be stopped. There is an absolute concern that if de Blasio can establish a precedent, it will take root and be used across the state,” said John Samuelsen, president of Transport Workers Union International and Transport Workers Union Local 100.
De Blasio was decidedly pro union during his first term. He spoke in favor of striking Verizon workers, and called Joe Ricketts, the billionaire owner of news websites DNAinfo and Gothamist, a “coward” when he closed both sites following a vote by workers to unionize. The de Blasio administration has also adopted other pro-labor policies, like going after illegal Airbnb rentals, an action supported by the Hotel Trades Council, and supporting the campaign for a $15 minimum wage. The city recently filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31, et al., which is challenging the right of unions to collect dues from all employees who benefit from collective bargaining.
“The de Blasio administration narrative has been one of productive collaborations with the unions,” said Maria Doulis, vice president of the Citizens Budget Commission.
Unions, like Nespoli’s 6,000-member Uniformed Sanitation Men’s Association, rewarded de Blasio with a raft of early endorsements during his re-election that helped scare off major challengers as he was facing a federal corruption inquiry.
“I will always recognize that this administration was willing to sit down. The last administration said, this is the contract, take it or leave it,” Nespoli said. “But this is a blueprint for how to shut down a union.”
The union’s lawsuit accuses the city of violating the Taylor Law, which granted public employees collective bargaining rights, known as the Triborough Doctrine. The doctrine says that management must keep the terms of a previous contract in place while a new one is negotiated.
The carpenters’ union has about 700 members who build and fix things for various city agencies, and they are among about 10,000 members of skilled trade union workers who are governed by the prevailing wage law.
They have the same protections as other unions, but can petition the city comptroller to set a prevailing wage based on what workers with the same job titles make in the private sector. The comptroller set the prevailing wage in 2015 but the carpenters, who have been without a contract since 2008, and the city could not agree on certain fringe benefits like paid time off.
During the carpenters’ last contract from 2005 to 2008, the wage rate was $41.71 an hour in addition to pension benefits, health care and contribution to a welfare fund. The package included 27 vacation days, 12 sick days, 12 holidays, and an annuity contribution of over $7 an hour. That package cost the city approximately $200,000 a person a year, said Robert W. Linn, the city’s labor relations commissioner.
When the comptroller set the prevailing wage of $49.88 an hour in 2015 to cover the years 2008 to 2014, it meant that the carpenters were no longer entitled to the same benefits under their last contract, Linn argued. Using a new benefits rate calculation, the city also determined they had been overpaying the carpenters and moved to restrict benefits to recoup the difference.
“What the union is insisting on is a package of wages of benefits that exceed that of the private sector,” Linn said, adding that the carpenters are using a “technicality” to try and get more money than workers in the private sector.
“The comptroller changed the terms and conditions of employment when he changed the wage,” Linn said. “I believe it’s perfectly consistent with the bargaining law.”
The carpenters have challenged that in court, saying the city maintained the 2008 contract benefits for over a year as they negotiated with the union. The city has not submitted a proper audit to show that they overpaid for benefits, and the union disagrees with how the city has calculated the benefits’ cost.
A state Supreme Court judge issued a temporary restraining order and restored 20 of the 39 paid leave days in question. The Comptroller’s office also ruled that the city could not restrict benefits to recoup back payments.
On Thursday, the city and the carpenters will attend their 11th mediation session, but thus far, they have been at a stalemate. Other unions are watching.
“All New York City employees deserve fair treatment,” Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers and a supporter of de Blasio, said in a statement. “The de Blasio administration needs to sit down with representatives of the carpenters’ union and resolve the issues raised by this lawsuit.” Bob Adair, 61, a carpenter for the Department of Sanitation, said losing his paid days off was a hardship after his wife underwent shoulder surgery and he had treatment for an aggressive form of prostate cancer. Adair came to work with a catheter because he could not afford to take unpaid time off.
“Every step was excruciating,” said Adair who has the rough hands of a carpenter and wears a thick pencil in his right ear. He had spent the day repairing four busted doors at a nearby sanitation garage but remains worried because he needs additional surgeries.
“The city has been good to me — except for this,” Adair said.