Now or never for NYC's public-sector workers

Sean Petty, a pediatric ER nurse and New York State Nurses Association member, describes the high stakes in contract battles for New York City public-sector unions.

AFSCME workers on the march at a New York City protest (David Shankbone)AFSCME workers on the march at a New York City protest (David Shankbone)

THE GLOBAL assault on public-sector workers is on in earnest in one of the country's last union strongholds: New York City. For the first time since 1975, every single union contract with the city, 152 in all, has expired.

The fact that all city unions have been without contracts, and therefore without raises, for a number of years has to led what the mainstream media are calling New York City's fiscal cliff--the estimated $7.8 billion cost for providing retroactive raises owed to city workers.

In addition to sustaining de facto two- to four-year wage freezes (depending on the date of contract expiration), the city has raised the specter of forcing city workers to pay into their health care benefits for the first time. As New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg argued in an op-ed article in the New York Daily News:

[B]y holding the line on retroactive raises, we are putting the next administration in a position of strength when it comes to contract negotiations. Union leaders will not wait another four years for a new contract, which gives the next administration unprecedented leverage to win pension and health care savings.

Which is exactly what, for instance, Democratic mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner aims to do. Weiner made headlines when he became the first candidate in the race to come out against retroactive raises and for forcing city workers to contribute to their health care. Most of the rest of the field is silent on the matter.

And this is just for starters. The real prize for New York City's business class is repealing the Triborough Amendment, which allows expired city contracts to remain in effect until new ones are negotiated.

What you can do

A mass rally of New York City workers and their supporters has been called for Wednesday, June 12, at 4 p.m. at City Hall.

These attacks, and the equivocal-at-best response of the largely Democratic field of mayoral candidates, reveal the disastrous consequences of the municipal unions' strategy of waiting until Bloomberg leaves before initiated a real fight.

The tone was set by the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), who have been without a contract for the longest--roughly four-and-a-half years. In 2009, Bloomberg demanded merit pay, changes in teacher evaluations and restructuring the Absent Teacher Reserve (ATR). The sticking point was the ATRs, as the UFT was willing to make concessions around teacher evaluations and merit pay.

But instead of using the negotiations as a mobilizing tool and a vocal defense of union rights, the UFT opted for a more passive strategy of waiting it out and hoping to curry favor with the next mayor.

Bloomberg's handy response, the union fiscal cliff, has exposed the critical weakness of this strategy--as has the fact that city unions have no unified strategy for the mayoral election.

The three largest unions have already or will likely endorse three separate candidates. SEIU's 1199 health care union gave an early endorsement to Public Advocate Bill De Blasio, AFSCME District Council 37 endorsed Comptroller John Liu, and the UFT will likely support former Comptroller Bill Thompson.

Now unions are in a position in which they have to start from square one with a frustrated and demoralized city workforce that has been working under expired contracts for up to four years.

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BUT LURKING behind this frustration is a seething anger that can turn into action under the right set of circumstances.

City workers kept New York City from complete collapse during Superstorm Sandy--from city nurses and hospital workers who evacuated hundreds of patients safely without a single adverse event, to sanitation workers who helped clean up a ruined city, to teachers who facilitated emergency housing and education.

These same workers were then docked pay and disciplined when they weren't able to show up to work in the days during and after the storm, and given almost no recognition for the recovery.

The lack of respect for the work we do is stunning. And to then be asked to continue with no raises and pay into our health care, while Wall Street is turning billions in profits, is pouring salt in our many wounds.

There are several important signs of renewal within some city unions. In 2011, there was a rank-and-file takeover of the New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA), which represents 8,000 city nurses, including this author. NYSNA's contract with New York City expired three and a half years ago, beginning under the old leadership, and is currently in arbitration.

After organizing relief efforts during Super Storm Sandy and successfully fighting to keep a major Brooklyn hospital from closing, additional resources are currently being devoted to mobilizing city nurses around safe staffing and respect on the job.

Within the UFT, the Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE) caucus won a significant minority of the vote in recent union elections. Activists in MORE have shown their ability to inspire fellow teachers, having been involved in such movements as Occupy the DOE [Department of Education] and on the front lines against school closures.

Administration for Children's Services (ACS) workers have formed a cross-union rank-and-file group called the ACS Coalition of Union Members (ACOUM). Ninety members signed an open letter to the Municipal Labor Council (MLC) in The Chief, the newspaper of municipal workers in New York City, outlining important arguments for why city workers shouldn't have to pay for this crisis:

It is worth noting that, while the mayor opposed pay increases for city workers, his wealth has grown during his tenure from just under $5 billion to over $25 billion in 2012. He is the perfect example of a leader who uses his financial and political leverage to exploit the system for himself and his friends of the 1 percent, leaving city employees poorer.

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THIS IS the message that should be being repeated over and over from the press office of the MLC. Indeed, taxing the rich and calling out Bloomberg for his wealth and corruption have been strikingly absent from the MLC's public statements.

Thankfully, a mass rally has been planned for Wednesday, June 12, at 4 p.m. at City Hall, with all city workers called to join together to voice opposition in this war of attrition. Rank-and-file activists in the UFT are building for the protest. NYSNA has buses coming from all city hospitals.

Meanwhile, there remain many open questions about next steps.

Clearly building unity with private-sector workers, especially low-wage and immigrant workers, will be key. The city's rhetoric rests on the characterization of city workers as unfairly living off others in New York City.

Building unity on the basis of the idea that everyone should have free health care and everyone should have a pension--as well as making Wall Street pay--would be a blow to the elite's divide-and-conquer tactics. As the ACOUM statement points out, "The ease with which our political leaders sacrifice our most vulnerable citizens, and we who serve them, while guilty corporate heads go unpunished and continue to reap high bonuses, is sickening."

Developing a strategy to build confidence and strength in workplaces--the hospitals, the schools, the offices, the sanitation hubs--would go a long way toward rebuilding city workers' confidence in their collective power on the job. Creative work-to-rule campaigns, grievance fights and local public actions that highlight the critical importance of the work we do could create a sense of momentum among our co-workers and win the public to our fight.

The theme of Wednesday's rally is "Workers count, workers vote, fair contracts for all!"--an obvious gesture toward the mayoral elections. We need to reject this passive approach in favor of one that organizes and mobilizes the power of city workers themselves--which is potentially greater than all of Bloomberg's hoarded gold.