By MARTY GOODMAN
New York’s self-proclaimed “progressive” mayor, Bill de Blasio, promised “respect” for the city’s 300,000 unionized public workers and has pledged to fight the city’s vast income inequality. What unions actually got was the same old hustle from the Democratic Party, as part of the city’s 1%.
De Blasio, who took office in January, is the first Democrat to get elected mayor in New York in 20 years. He is seen as a national standard bearer of a “reform”-minded Democratic Party, despite his strong support for Israel and his backtracking on police brutality reform (see article in August’s Socialist Action).
All of the city’s 152 contracts were expired, but new contracts were negotiated in the absence of any serious contract fight and were finally approved overwhelmingly by a desperate and demoralized workforce, many of whom hadn’t seen a raise since 2009.
Thus far, some 60% of the public-worker unions have settled and have agreed to exceptionally long contracts. The pattern-setting United Federation of Teachers (UFT), which represents 110,000 workers, settled for a nine-year contract in May, which includes raises below projected inflation. Put more simply, it’s a pay cut.
“We look at the city’s fiscal numbers all the time; it is clear to us that there is money out there,” said UFT President Michael Mulgrew in an interview. In fact, income from taxes is up sharply. Tax income saw a $700 million increase in just the first four months of this year, reported New York Daily News columnist Juan Gonzalez. Besides the surplus revenue for the new fiscal year, which began in July, de Blasio plans a $750 million budget cushion over the next four years. No wonder de Blasio was in a hurry to set a low wage pattern with the influential UFT in May.
In reality, while Mayor de Blasio complained of being left with too little money in the budget for contracts by outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg, all budgets must be approved by the Democratic Party majority on the city council. It’s all a question of what priorities the ruling class has—and justice for workers is not on the top of its list. The city’s top negotiator, Robert Linn, a de Blasio appointee, is himself worth $4.5 million.
What actually happened? The UFT pact, which represents 110,000 workers, contains two “pattern”-based 4% retro raises for 2009 and 2010 (when former billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg cut off negotiations), for a total of 18% in raises over the life of the agreement. In 2011 and 2012 are two zero raises camouflaged by a $1000 lump sum payment, a bosses’ trick that adds nothing to base pay in future negotiations. Some of the UFT raises will be implemented as late as 2020, after the contract expires and in money reduced in value by inflation.
In a bid to placate the for-profit charter school movement, the agreement allows for a suspension of union rules in 10% of schools, after conducting a teacher vote in affected locations.
Lastly, the UFT pact also contains an ominous $1.3 billion in as yet unspecified health-care “savings” to offset raises, thus making workers pay for their own raises with inevitable cuts in health care. If the union and the city cannot agree, an arbitrator may be called in to impose the health-care “savings,” which may include new membership deductions. Arbitration is a process that claims impartiality but ultimately benefits the bosses, in this case, the city’s rulers.
The UFT health-care deal is part of a larger sellout agreement with the city by the Municipal Labor Council, a city-wide union coalition loyal to the Democrats, which agreed to a whopping $3.4 billion total of health-care “savings” in all new city contracts. The bureaucrats of the American Federation of Teachers, the UFT’s parent organization, squandered $350,000 in membership dues on de Blasio’s election.
The second large contract negotiated by de Blasio is District Council 37, with more than 100,000 members, one-third of the city workforce. DC 37 reached an agreement with the city for a 10% raise spread over seven years, averaging 1.5% per year. The contract contains $795 million in health-care “savings,” to be found by the end of the contract.
The rotten deal includes a “gain-sharing plan,” a money inducement that bosses use to agree on saving money through speed-up, downsizing, and other anti-worker measures. An example is the scheme started in the 1980s for sanitation trucks to use two workers instead of three. Getting workers to screw themselves for a couple of extra bucks is a bosses dream!
De Blasio cited the DC 37 deal as what “respect and cooperation can accomplish.” De Blasio’s campaign theme was income inequality in the world’s richest city, as expressed in his slogan, “A Tale of Two Cities.” But public union workers now face years of being kicked in the teeth financially with rapidly rising rents and other expenses.
First to agree to a low raise contract in 2014 was the trend-setting transit union, the Transport Workers Union Local 100, whose 34,000 members provide train and bus service for New York City but work for New York State. The contract included an 8% raise over five years, and a two-tier pay scale—which creates second-class new employees, who will reach top pay only after five years, instead of three previously.
The current TWU pact includes an increase in membership health-care deductions to 2%, up from 1.5%, a public worker pattern first agreed to in the New York region by former New Directions Local 100 President Roger Toussaint in a 2005 contract deal. Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo, who originally demanded zero-raise public worker contracts, was called in by Local 100 to personally broker the rotten deal in April.
The TWU contract, the first major union out of the gate this year, served to lower expectations for all public workers. The city’s Independent Budget Office projects cost-of-living increases as 8.7% between 2012 and 2016, while transit worker raises will be 6% over the same period.
Most affected will be new Cleaners—mostly African American, Hispanic, and immigrant workers—who will start at 60% of full pay and reach full pay after five years but in smaller increments. The agreement is a reversal of a key goal of the 2005 transit strike, securing equality for the “unborn,” that is, new workers not yet on the property who were threatened with a higher pension deduction demanded by the Metropolitan Transportation Agency. The agreement is a divisive throwback to the worst days of the Local 100 bureaucracy, when contract raises were sold on the backs of the most vulnerable workers.
The union “leadership,” led by President John Samuelson and remnants of the former rebel New Directions Caucus, gave Mayor de Blasio overwhelming campaign support, just as they gave to Barack Obama, who, like Bush, bailed out the banks but not working people. Willfully ignored are the repeated episodes in which Democratic Party politicians have turned the screws against New York City’s workforce.
This round of New York City contracts once again confirms the importance of the strategy that socialists put forward for the labor movement in order to win. This includes organizing for working-class political independence, democratic fighting unions, and job actions including strikes.