Workers Vanguard No. 1115
28 July 2017
De Blasio Screws NYC Carpenters
11 July 2017
To Workers Vanguard:
Should anyone believe that NYC’s Democratic Party mayor Bill de Blasio is a friend to the City unions, look no further than the recent treatment of the civil service Carpenters organized in the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America.
Beginning in January the City unilaterally cut yearly benefits to the tune of $25-30,000. Under this diktat the Carpenters no longer receive any sick day accruals (it had been 12), the annual leave days were reduced to one per year from 27 and the number of paid holidays was reduced from 12 to 10. In addition, retirement annuity payments that had been $7.21 per hour were reduced to 22¢! All paid jury duty days were eliminated as were bereavement days for deaths in the family.
This massive cut in benefits was, according to de Blasio’s Office of Labor Relations under Robert Linn, intended to cover the increased cost of NYC’s pension plan. The City said the Carpenters owed the City tens of millions of dollars in retroactive payments. Previously the City used a formula that set the percent of wages that cover pension funding at 8%. The City now calculates that about 25% of wages are required. The City has offered no explanation of how they arrived at their new formula. It was just asserted.
Unfortunately, the strategy of the union officials to fight against these cuts has proved toothless, and has shown a touching faith in the same state agencies that side with the bosses. Union officials are reportedly “fighting” against this attack on five fronts: the State Courts, Mediation, through the Comptroller’s office, the Mayor’s office and the state legislature.
There is no inkling that what is necessary is a unified show of strength by New York unions whose interest is to support the Carpenters. If de Blasio can do this to the Carpenters, it is just a matter of time before similar tactics are used more broadly. But when Carpenters said there should be picket lines at locations where de Blasio was speaking or a strike, union officials dismissed this quickly and instead called for a press conference.
One of the main strategies by the union is to make use of an amendment to the union-busting Taylor Law known as the Triborough agreement. While the Taylor Law makes striking by government workers in NY state illegal, the Triborough agreement stipulates that if a new contract has not been negotiated the terms of the old one should stand. The current City administration is now shredding the 2005-08 Carpenters contract, which has yet to be renegotiated.
But the Taylor Law in its entirety should be rejected by all New York labor. The unions were not built in this country by relying on the good graces of labor laws, courts or other state agencies but through withholding their labor through militant strike actions as necessary.
Other unions have some understanding that the cuts to the Carpenters are a broader attack on labor. The MLC (the Municipal Labor Committee, representing about 150 unions in the city) has filed a “friend of the court” brief in support of the Carpenters’ legal fight. But the court filing is a drop in the bucket compared to what is possible or needed.
In fact, judges have issued temporary restraining orders (TROs) which ordered a stop to the cutbacks. But the City has simply ignored those orders and maintained the cuts. The union then attempted to get a contempt of court ruling against the City but that failed when the judge decided to shuffle the case off to another court. A new TRO will supposedly restore half of the removed sick and vacation days (of course, “temporarily”). But to date this has not happened. And the courts never ruled that the City should restore any of the slashed annuity.
It couldn’t be clearer that the union officials’ faith in supposedly “labor friendly” Democrats is a losing strategy. All NYC unions waited until the previous mayor, Michael Bloomberg, was replaced to negotiate expired contracts. It was obvious that Bloomberg wanted to slash union wages and benefits. As for the craft unions, such as the Carpenters, his plan was to break them from prevailing rate negotiations and reclassify these titles at a lower scale.
When de Blasio came to office negotiations finally began. Unions had been without contracts for many years. In 2015, the Carpenters signed a partial agreement for wages, which included retroactive increases from 2008. But there was no contract signed that included benefits such as days off, annuity, etc. The Carpenters union officials were in no hurry to sign a contract as they know that they would have to fight against the City’s plan to cut benefits.
Under de Blasio most unions, such as the Teachers and DC37, settled contracts under the “citywide pattern” agreement, with raises below NYC’s cost of living increases. For example, DC37, which represents about 125,000 workers, signed a new seven-year contract in 2014, which only provided a 10% raise over that period while substantially cutting back health care benefits. A measly $1,000 signing bonus was thrown in.
Under State Law 220 trades have an option to bargain using either the pattern agreement or the prevailing rate method. The Carpenters chose to push for the prevailing rate instead of the citywide pattern. The prevailing rate law purports to set wages and benefits to the level of comparable workers in the private sector in the region. Since de Blasio took office, his administration has pushed almost every trade to pattern bargaining. Reportedly there are only a few trades left that are under prevailing rate bargaining and the fact that the Carpenters fought for the prevailing rate was the basis for the vindictive cuts by the City according to officials.
Of course, the City has more workers in their sights than the 700 civil service Carpenters. Unions should not be relying on state laws (like 220) to protect them against the ever-increasing attempts to cut their wages and benefits. Only by union solidarity and independence from all forces outside the working class can we go forward.