Labor ally or fiscal hawk? Adams faces hard choice as NYC municipal unions demand raises in COVID era

Labor ally or fiscal hawk? Adams faces hard choice as NYC municipal unions demand raises in COVID era

New York City’s largest nurses’ strike in decades this week was a reminder of the power of unions — and of the collective bargaining dance that now awaits Mayor Eric Adams.

As Adams settles into his second year, the vast majority of the city’s union contracts have expired, and labor leaders are expected to push for raises that take into account their performance of their members during the unprecedented pandemic.

Negotiations with District Council 37, the city’s largest municipal union with 80,000 members, have already begun.

Asked Thursday how he’d approach his own negotiations with city workers, Adams spoke about his unique perspective as a former city public servant himself.

“When we talk about health care, that’s my health care, when we talk about pension, that’s my pension, when we talk about the commitment of being a civil servant, that’s who I was,” he said.

“I know what they do, and we’re going to be as fair and fiscally responsible as possible,” he added.

All told, the city deals with 150 bargaining units, whose members range from teachers and crossing guards to police and sanitation workers.

Unlike the nurses at the private hospitals, the state’s Taylor Law prohibits public employees from striking. Nevertheless, the contract talks pose a test for Adams, a centrist Democrat who was backed by unions during his mayoral campaign but has promised to rein in workforce spending and make “prudent use of taxpayer dollars.” A combination of factors, led by the risk of recession and the gradual drying up of federal pandemic aid, have created an uncertain fiscal outlook for the city. And which strategy Adams will employ – fiscal hawk or labor ally – remains unclear.

The outcome could have huge impacts on New Yorkers. Costly raises may force the city to make cuts to programs and services – or deepen deficits in future years.

“The mayor has said he does not want raises that are unaffordable to the city,” said Ana Champeny, vice president for research at the Citizens Budget Commission, a fiscal watchdog group. “By and large, everyone realizes that this will be a big hit to the city budget if the agreement is greater than what the city can easily absorb.”

There are signs that the recovery from the pandemic is slowing. Office buildings are still only about half full, suggesting a permanent shift by companies to hybrid work. Layoffs are occurring on Wall Street, a critical sector of the city’s economy.

On the other hand, protracted and acrimonious negotiations run the risk of demoralizing the workforce and alienating an important political base.

“The longer you wait, the longer your members are not seeing the money in their paychecks,” Champeny said.

Adams’ predecessor, Bill de Blasio, also faced demands by unions for new contracts, although in his case, all of the bargaining units had expired contracts. He settled most of them during his first year.

An unprecedented crisis

Like the nurses — who reached a deal Thursday — the municipal labor leaders have a compelling case: Many of their members took risks as they did their jobs in person during the height of the pandemic. Scores of city workers died from the virus, including 91 city education department employees. They have also had to work amid a staffing shortage and record-high inflation that’s lowered the spending power of their salaries.

“It’s time to pay the people that kept this city going,” said Harry Nespoli, president of the Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association which has 7,100 members. The union had its first bargaining session last month.

“These city workers have to be recognized,” he added.

Mayor Eric Adams (at podium) with Office of Management and Budget Director Jacques Jiha. Adams takes questions from reporters on his latest budget proposal, in which he said will address union raises.

Elizabeth Kim/Gothamist

The pandemic is expected to shape the unions’ demands in more ways than one. The mayor’s steadfast refusal to allow flexibility around remote work has frustrated a large number of city workers and led many to quit.

Union leaders could seek to negotiate hybrid schedules for office workers. They are also likely to leverage the fact that the city has been struggling to fill thousands of vacancies.

“If the contract negotiations are very fraught with tension and the city is saying we don’t have the ability to pay more, that will make the ability to recruit workers harder yet,” said James Parrott, the director of economic and fiscal policy at the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School.

An opening salvo

The current administration has opened negotiations by setting aside money to pay for annual raises of 1.25%, a number well below what unions are expected to settle for. Members of District Council 37, the city’s largest municipal union also known as DC37, were previously given three-year raises of 2%, 2.25% and 3%.

With 80,000 members, DC37 often establishes the pattern for bargaining for all city unions. Talks between the union’s leaders and the city’s negotiating team are already underway. A third meeting is scheduled for later this month.

Adams — who on Thursday unveiled a $102.7 budget plan — has acknowledged that the 1.25% figure is a starting point. At the same time, he said his administration “will not make deals that the city cannot afford.

According to an analysis by the Citizens Budget Commission, a 3% raise would cost the city an additional $800 million in the first year. The additional costs would balloon in successive years, to that of $1.6 billion and $2.5 billion.

The question, Champeny said, is not only how much higher the mayor would be willing to go on raises, but how he plans to pay for them.

Achieving savings on health care is a common route. Adams is seeking to push through a plan introduced by the de Blasio administration that would move retired city workers to a private insurer. The proposal, which is currently undergoing City Council approval, could generate $600 million in savings, according to the city.

‘One of us’

Aside from dollars and cents, there is a political calculus too. Few New York City mayors have boasted as close a connection to city workers as Eric Adams. As a member of the NYPD, he rose through the rank-and-file to become a captain. His late mother was once a member of DC37.

DC37, whose members include many low-wage workers of color, was among the key unions that backed Adams during his campaign for mayor.

“A lot of public employees really liked him as a candidate because they felt he was ‘one of us,’” said Joshua Freeman, a labor historian at CUNY.

Adams’ civil service background makes him an unusual New York City mayor, he added. Not since 1932 has there been another mayor who had previously served the city in a non-appointed civil service position.

A lot of public employees really liked him as a candidate because they felt he was ‘one of us.’

Joshua Freeman, labor historian at CUNY

Nonetheless, Freeman said, “There’s not a lot of tip offs as to which direction he’s gonna go.”

Some budget analysts have disagreed with the mayor’s gloomy fiscal forecast. But union leaders say all mayors will cry broke when it’s time to negotiate with the unions.

“They always seem to find that money,” scoffed Shaun Francois, who heads a local union under DC37. His members include school cafeteria workers who helped distribute free meals during the pandemic.

The 55-year-old began his career three decades ago by washing pots and pans at a middle school in Queens. He later worked his way up to become a head cook.

For Francois, the union’s message to Adams, who once worked as a dishwasher, is simple.

“Don’t forget where you’ve come from,” he said.

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