News analysis: City unions face challenges

For both Yale and City Hall this year, negotiations with their unions suggest a reversal in traditional relationships.

Whereas for the University, the Best Practices initiative helped overturn a traditionally embattled labor history, the city’s historically cordial labor history has recently seen an unprecedented struggle. And the impetus for this, one city union official said, was the economic climate. Mayor John DeStefano Jr. said in a recent interview with the News that a collaboration — one akin to the contract sealed nine months ahead of schedule between Yale and its unions, Locals 34 and 35 — between City Hall and its 13 unions, though feasible, would be hard to forge.

Mayor John DeStefano delivers his 2009 State of the City address.
Joseph Breen
Mayor John DeStefano delivers his 2009 State of the City address.

“The circumstances of the University financial situation are different than the city’s,” he said last week. “And the collective bargaining rules under which we work are dramatically different from [Yale’s] unions.”

To be sure, this year has been a difficult year financially for both DeStefano and City Hall’s unions. As City Hall struggles to close a possible $6 million budget gap for fiscal year 2010, DeStefano has demanded that the unions give a total of $10 million in concessions, threatening that layoffs would occur if the unions chose not to comply. So far, only four of the 13 unions have agreed to City Hall-demanded concessions, and DeStefano said last week that he expects no other unions to make any further budget concessions. To many, the tension has been apparent.

“We had always had an ability to work with the mayor up until this year,” said Larry Amendola, president of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3144 — City Hall’s supervisor union. “And then we ran up to a budget problem.”

At Yale, the conversations leading to the early contract agreement began in August 2007, before the economy began to decline. University administrators said they took a critical look at improving efficiency and productivity across both Locals 34 and 35. But as wage and job security discussions began — amid the economic recession — both sides began to agree to equitable concessions. In the final contract agreements, Local 34 received stronger job security at the cost of a wage freeze in the first year to help the University to lower expenses.

Especially in the troubled economic times, Yale and union officials vowed to work together to prevent labor strikes.

At City Hall, on the other hand, DeStefano’s firm decision not to raise residents’ taxes this year allowed for little wiggle room. Although several unions, such as Local 3144, presented DeStefano with partial concessions, he rejected them, stressing that full concessions needed to be met. Still, City Hall officials did accept a just-under-full amount of concessions by the school cafeteria worker union, Hotel and Restaurant Workers Local 217, last month.

DeStefano said in February that he does not want to accept partial concessions because he does not want to make exceptions for individual unions, especially when some unions have fully paid what city officials have asked.

There is no indication that the tensions between City Hall and its unions will continue onto future years. Amendola and other union leaders said that, because of the economy, this year seems like a fluke.

So far, 27 municipal employees have been laid off, and about 100 city employees from the nine remaining unions will be laid off come June. DeStefano said the possibility of more layoffs is still on the table to fill the city’s expected budget hole.

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