Four out of the five unions in the NYPD have agreed to contracts with the de Blasio administration. But the largest of them— The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association— is still holding out for something better. As a result, the PBA has been without a contract or pay raises since 2010 and the union recently decided to go to arbitration. How did the PBA get to this point?
Toward the end of his tenure, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg was unwilling to budge on his union deal proposals. So the PBA, along with the other city unions, continued operating under expired contracts, waiting for a new mayor to take office and in hopes of a better bargaining climate. According to New York State law, if a union contract expires, it stays in force until a new one is ratified.
“There’s really never been a situation like the one that de Blasio inherited, where in the last couple years of the Bloomberg administration, no contracts were negotiated and they all expired,” said Joshua Freeman, a distinguished professor of history at CUNY School of Professional Studies.
When mayor Bill de Blasio took office, he got busy on the union front. As of mid-March, the mayor had made deals with about 75 percent of the unions that bargain with New York City—but not the PBA. As a result, NYC police officers haven’t seen raises or adjustments for inflation in half a decade.
What happened? Some blame political motives and others blame Bloomberg’s unwillingness to budge in the past. The PBA represents 24,000 police officers, making it one of the largest New York City unions—and the largest NYPD union in the largest police department in the country. According to Albert O’Leary, the communications director at the PBA, “We are the only union who earns less than our colleagues and other police departments. The state law that sets up this arbitration process is specific in saying that people of certain professions should earn a market rate of pay that other people of same duties and same risks earn in other jurisdictions. We are still among the lowest paid police department in the nation. It’s not right.” The basic maximum pay for the officers is $76,488.
If a union doesn’t want to accept the mayor’s deal, which is often derived from a “pattern” set by one of the larger union deals—in this case, it was the United Federation of Teachers—the two parties sit down for non-binding mediation. But if they still can’t agree to a deal, the union can apply to the Public Employment Relations Board for a recognition of an impasse with the city. If the petition to PERB is granted, both sides begin the arbitration process. Arbitration is like a court case. Both sides hire big law firms and there are hearings before a panel of three. The decision from arbitration is binding and the process can take months and can get costly.
That’s what happened. The disagreement among cops now is whether that is good or bad for them. O’Leary said PBA President Pat Lynch’s decision to take the contract to arbitration was a necessity. However, arbitration will further delay any raises and retroactive pay for union members. Many members are angry and are blaming Lynch for taking so long. Not surprisingly, Lynch’s loudest critic is his challenger for president, Brian Fusco. The PBA election is slated for June.
“The members aren’t happy,” said Fusco, a 27-year NYPD veteran. “As a member myself, I’m not happy. My wife, who is a recently retired police officer, isn’t happy. The members’ feelings are, he put himself in front of them.”
According to Fusco, Lynch had an opportunity to challenge Bloomberg several years ago by going to PERB then and arguing that the mayor wasn’t negotiating in good faith, another criteria for submitting a petition. Going to PERB under Bloomberg would have allowed the PBA to make a contract deal without a precedent set by previous union deals. Since all the unions were under expired contracts, Fusco said, Lynch “could have taken the bull by the horns and set the pattern ourselves.”
“If I had been in office, I certainly would have tried to sit down with Mayor Bloomberg four or five years ago and tried to get my members under contract,” Fusco said. “That really should be the number one obligation of any union.”
Fusco thinks Lynch’s decision to avoid going to PERB under Bloomberg was intentional, since he knew he’d be up for reelection under a new mayor in June 2015. “It’s no coincidence that after five long years, we’ll be going to PERB during the PBA elections. Just really, it’s unacceptable,” Fusco said. “You never put yourself before the membership, your job is to serve the membership.”
However, Lynch’s people said the election had no bearing on the union’s decision to go to arbitration and that they went to PERB but were told to wait for a new mayor. Al O’Leary said the PBA tried to negotiate with Bloomberg but he would only agree to a contract that included three years with no increased wages. “We weren’t going to sign that,” O’Leary said. “The cost of living goes up. We tried to take Bloomberg to arbitration. They said we should just wait until after the election of the new mayor.”
So that’s what the PBA did—waited until de Blasio took office and the state assigned a monitor to oversee the negotiations. But the negotiations still didn’t go anywhere. “One year with no raises is not acceptable to us,” O’Leary said, of de Blasio’s proposed contract. After months of unproductive negotiations, the monitor declared an impasse and the PBA filed for binding arbitration in late 2014, according to O’Leary. The three-person panel has been chosen and hearings should begin in May and June. This means a decision from the arbiters wouldn’t be out until several months after the PBA election.
This is not the first time the PBA has gone to arbitration. “The irony here is that we’ve been through this process before,” O’Leary said. “In fact, we’ve been through this arbitration process three times before. In two of those situations, we broke the city’s pattern. We got more for the police officers than any of the other unions had received.”
Despite the PBA’s success in the past, Fusco is not as optimistic this time around, since about three quarters of the city’s unions have ratified contracts similar to the pattern set by the United Federation of Teachers in May. The arbitrators, he said, often look at the pattern and the unions that ratified under those circumstances when making a decision.
George Shea, Fusco’s press representative said, “there’s just no rationale” for going into arbitration when the majority of unions have settled. “They should have gone in before a pattern was set and there were zero contracts.”
O’Leary, on the other hand, sees the existing pattern as an advantage. The Detectives Endowment Association, Captains Endowment Association, and the Sergeants Benevolent Association all ratified contracts with 11-percent raises over the seven-year contract. In the past, the PBA has gone to arbitration before the other NYPD unions had set a contract. “The city argued at arbitration that, ‘Oh, if we give the PBA this amount, than we have to give it to the sergeants, the detectives, the lieutenants, and the captains,’” O’Leary said. “In this case, they don’t have that argument anymore because those guys already settled.”
However, Fusco thinks Lynch missed an opportunity with Bloomberg to do better than what eventually became the pattern. Not only could the city afford raises due to billions in budget surplus but also, “There wasn’t a single city employee who was currently under contract so there wasn’t a single pattern to compare it to. We could have gone in and set the pattern.”