As a former assemblyman who once cast the only "nay" vote to extend mandatory arbitration to settle police wage disputes, I had conflicting emotions in hearing about the arbitration ruling granting New York City police officers a mere one percent annual salary increase.
For once, the arbitration panel did not give the store away. But in erring on the side of fiscal responsibility, the arbitrators got it completely backwards. New York City officers are hardly overpaid. The belt tightening is needed mostly in other departments around the state, such as those on Long Island, where arbitrators had at one point given starting salaries that were higher than where New York City officers capped out.
It is remarkably counterintuitive that police covering relatively safe suburbs could be earning over $200,000 annually while New York City cops, who were facing far more danger and confrontation, were receiving unsatisfactory wages.
These sort of illogical outcomes stem entirely from the well intentioned, but highly abused, mandatory arbitration system. The arbitration laws were instituted in 1974 as a supplement to the controversial Taylor Law, which was crafted in response to union strikes that crippled the city’s finances. The laws stated that unions would forgo the ability to strike and gave independent panels the power to quickly settle disputes to keep workers on the job. New York City police unions, however, were excluded from the law.
The result was a game of salary leapfrog between Nassau and Suffolk county police departments. An arbitrator would grant huge raises to one county only to have the adjoining county ask for more the next round – using the other county's award as a new market value that needed to be topped.
Mandatory arbitration became an unforeseen boon to the unions. County elected officials, who were supposed to be adversaries of the unions at the bargaining table, were unduly influenced by union endorsements and donations. Local electeds were more than happy to punt the salary decision off to the arbitrator without so much as a fight. When the arbitrator granted increases far above inflation, the unions got what they wanted, while the electeds got their continued flow of donations and would simply blame the arbitrator for the taxpayer hit.
The salary and terms became so outlandish that Long Island contracts contain provisions granting salaries over $200,000 per year, with 100 paid days off, six weeks vacation, pension exceeding $150,000 per year, and severance pay of a quarter million dollars for unused sick and vacation days. These types of numbers were inconceivable to New York City cops.
In 1998, New York city cops were finally granted mandatory arbitration. Unfortunately, just when they thought they would start to catch up to the relatively exorbitant salaries of Long Island cops, they get hit with one of the stingiest arbitrations for law enforcement ever seen in New York state.
Here are four ways for arbitrators to get it right the next time:
- Give underpaid New York City cops a decent bump, while holding the line on the Long Island salaries that are already in the stratosphere.
- Remove the Long Island provision that allows officers to cash out unused sick days and adopt the New York City rule that gives unlimited sick, where justified, without any cash outs.
- End the process of allowing employees to factor overtime into the salary upon which a pension will be based.
- Reform rules that allow for tax-free salaries for workers on disability, thereby netting them more income than officers who are working.
State legislators can do their part during the upcoming 2016 legislative session, when they will have the opportunity to pass bills presently in committee that would significantly change the mandatory arbitration process. The Legislature can simply allow the arbitration law to expire by simply refusing to renew it (as is required every two years). My lone vote against continuing arbitration almost 15 years ago was before there was a focus on the abuses of this system. Now that the public is more keenly aware of the $200,000 police officer on Long Island, perhaps more than just a single nay vote will be cast
Steve Levy is President of Common Sense Strategies, a political consulting firm. He served as Suffolk County Executive, as a NYS Assemblyman, and host of "The Steve Levy Radio Show