The recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Janus case isn’t the first time organized labor has faced a grave threat. Bob Linn, a longtime labor official in New York City, remembers the severe challenges faced by unions during a severe fiscal crisis in the late 1970s.
City & State reached out to Linn and another top city labor figure, New York City Councilman I. Daneek Miller, to discuss how conditions have changed for unions over the years, what Janus means for the city, and the state of the city’s workforce.
Commissioner, New York City Office of Labor Relations
What are some of the most important ways your role as the commissioner of labor relations has changed since your stint under New York City Mayor Ed Koch?
First of all, actually back then it was called the director of labor relations. But the main difference between the negotiations back in the late ’70s and ’80s is that it was a period where the negotiations followed the city’s fiscal crisis, and that there were negotiations where the unions and the city were working together to try and deal with the incredible fiscal difficulties that had all occurred in the mid-’70s and we were still working (our) way out of those issues and then moving forward and developing a set of relationships.
When I got here in the de Blasio administration, this was a situation where all of the labor agreements hadn’t been renegotiated in three to five years, in some cases even more. And there really was a tremendous desire on the part of labor to come together with management and figure out solutions to some very difficult problems. But there was a desire to sit down and bargain. There was a real sense that collective bargaining had not been working very effectively for years and all of the unions wanted to meet with the city and we moved from one contract to another and I think a very problem-solving fashion and reaching a settlement on one contract after another.
How do you think the U.S. Supreme Court’s Janus decision is going to affect New York’s public sector unions?
We have been working closely with all of the city to figure out ways to lessen the negative impact of Janus and to make sure that the collective bargaining process continues in an effective way. We completely believe in collective bargaining. I believe that labor and management comes to the table and eventually solves difficult problems and that both are better off for having labor negotiations. Often issues surface in the collective bargaining discussions that are truly important for management to know and without this process of the give and take of collective bargaining, I think that the public sector doesn’t work as well.
So that is included in the most recent District Council 37 labor agreement. We agreed that there would be a timely reporting of new hires. The unions would have access to meet with new employees, that they would have notification of promotions and reclassifications and that there would be a labor management committee to work on these types of details.
In bargaining for paid parental leave for teachers, what tactics did you use in order to cover the cost of the benefit?
I don’t think tactic is the right one word here. Let me start by saying that paid parental leave was an important thing to achieve for both management and labor. The city has taken the position that paid parental leave or family leave or whatever the approach we take in this area is something that should be funded out of collective bargaining and the United Federation of Teachers agreed that we would find a way to come up with collective bargaining funding sources in order to pay for a benefit. And to me, it is a perfect item for collective bargaining because it was complex; you needed to figure out what would be the projections of cost; how much pain do you think would go to the birth parent and to the parent who wasn’t giving birth in the situation with adoption; all of these things you needed to figure out what would be the projected costs. And we spent a number of months with a group of labor and management figuring out what would be the projected costs of providing this benefit. Then the question is what is the extent of the benefits. And we spent a lot of time discussing what the benefit would look like and it’s a benefit that looks in many ways like the managerial paid parental leave plan that we put in place previously for our unrepresented employees, our managers and nonrepresented employees.
And so we then had to come up with, OK, how would this benefit be paid for? And that we again sat down and figured out an approach and the approach that we came up with is, is basically paid for through an extension of the labor agreement that’s currently in effect by two months and 13 days and then also the fact that when you received the benefit, you don’t receive pension coverage, you’re off payroll for that cost of that, of that benefits a pension savings as well.
What effect will paid parental leave have on the negotiation of the new UFT contract that is coming up?
I think very positive because the union came to the bargaining table with something they very much wanted to achieve. We achieved it in a way that everybody thought was a responsible and good approach, and applauded by everybody, including some editorials that are often not so favorable to about things that we do. I think that a result like that can only be beneficial in the conversations that are now taking place between the city and the teachers.
‘What doesn’t kill you …’
Chairman, New York City Council Committee on Civil Service and Labor
How would you characterize the state of the workforce in New York City right now?
Honestly, the old saying is: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” I think we’re as united and unified as we’ve been in quite a while. We are once again working collaboratively across not just industries but across different local unions, public and private sector, and I’ve been really excited about the type of collaborations that I’ve seen and the support that has occurred. I think the labor movement currently has some of the strongest visionaries and leadership that we’ve seen in a very long time. The movement now has become quite thoughtful, and educated, and creative out of necessity and I think that that’s going to carry us a long way.
And as the chairman of the New York City Council Committee on Civil Service and Labor, what are your main priorities, say for the next year? And how have they changed since you first took office?
With all due respect to my colleagues in government in all aspects, our vehicle is often the committee. When I was elected in 2015, the support that I got from the labor movement was because we did not have a voice and I was tired of this.
One of the things that we certainly want to continue to address is pay equity, a piece of legislation that was co-authored between myself and Councilwoman Laurie Cumbo. We’re talking about pay equity within our own municipality, and we’ve been very aggressive in going after private industry, corporate America, and holding them accountable to good labor standards. The city has to make sure that people are being compensated equitably for the same task.
How do you think the U.S. Supreme Court’s Janus decision could affect organized labor in New York City?
We’re going to be doing a hearing on (the) Janus decision, because there was some concern about whether or not it was premature and whether we’ll see an impact. This gives us the time to strategically put the ideas into motion so that we can prevent any negative impact as a result from the Janus decision.
We want to take a look at public policy throughout the land and take a look at some of the internal mechanisms that some of the local unions have put in place to engage their membership and just see what works and give organized labor the forum to figure out what works and share their resources.
When is that hearing?
Looking to do it in mid-October.
You once said that you think New York City should emphasize economic development by focusing on small business development. Do you still believe that and could you expand on it a little bit?
I think that small business development remains absolutely imperative. If you look at each community throughout the city and what they were able to traditionally produce and what they produce now, we feel like it declined in production. I think what we have not been able to do is capture the benefits of these individual communities. Real jobs that support real communities are certainly out there and we are not aggressively pursuing that.
I will say this that Senior Employment Services and other agencies have attempted to support some of the minority and women-owned business enterprises and other small businesses, but it takes a real collaborative effort, and a lot of training for the next-generation workforce for organized labor.
As a former president of the MTA bus drivers union, I’m interested in hearing what your thoughts are on the Select Bus Service expansion and on the recent decision to postpone it.
If all you want to do is paint the ground on the street and do nothing else, that’s not going to save you the time that is necessary. I don’t know what it’s going to take to change the culture that we value transportation like they do in other cities and metropolises throughout, but it just didn’t happen.
If you save me five minutes on an hour, is that worth $20-$30 million? I think we can be more efficient than that, and more efficient with the resources that we have. We’re still operating bus routes on old trolley routes. They’re antiquated and the majority of the express buses that run into the city do not run full-day service or weekend service. If you want to get people off of the road, give them transportation alternatives. For my community, we don’t have subways, so we should have express buses that run beyond taking you in the morning and bringing you back in the afternoon. And more importantly, the majority of express buses do not go beyond 23rd Street, where the majority of the people work downtown in the business district.
I think the concept SBS, it has real merit to it, but without investment, it’s just talk.
I understand you ended up voting against the waste equity bill, even though your community was one of the ones affected. How do you feel about instituting commercial waste franchising?
I support 495, certainly on its merit, but ultimately the piece of legislation that was just punitive to satisfy special interests failed to satisfy the needs of my community. My community is one that actually does not meet the 10 percent threshold. We’re about 4 percent. And since the city opened up its marine transfer station, that has declined as well, but it was an opportunity for my community – at the city, state, and federal level, my colleagues from the community – to leverage investments in waste transfer and recycle. So a community of color, which has been disproportionately impacted by it, now becomes the template and the model for responsible waste transfer and recycle, not just to the city but in the nation.
I also thought that a component that we really should address is safety within the industry and this did nothing to address those issues. And so that was my opposition in doing so, but we continue to work with the speaker.
Do you think you’re in a good place for leverage?
Yes, we’re in a very good place. He and I met last week. We’re meeting next week with some of the industry folks.
In the months leading up to the midterm elections, what would you hope to hear more about from the gubernatorial candidates?
I want to see labor holistically engaged. I want to hear that we’re not talking to organized labor but talking with organized labor, and not to the organized labor of our choosing. And I want to know that public sector and private sector are being engaged, not just about how we sustain these industries and how we continue to provide these services, but how we grow these services. And not just now during the campaign but moving forward. There’s certainly a lot of work to be done, but there’s also a lot of great minds out there and I know that they are ready, willing and able to step up and continue to contribute to this great city that we have here.
New York is the leading union state in the country and all eyes are on us. And what we do, we do not just for our great city and our great state, but (for) workers throughout the country.
What about from the state attorney general candidates?
I would absolutely love to see that they continue to support workers, that they hold industry accountable in so many ways, and that when they aren’t that we treat the full resources of those offices and come down upon those who are violating rights of workers and the rights of working people and organized labor.
Because often, when that happens, the onus falls on workers, and we want to make sure that if you’re tasked with delivering high-speed broadband that you’re doing it at the level that you’re supposed to, or whatever it is that you’re supposed to do, and when that is not happening that our highest-ranking law enforcement office in the state is holding folks accountable.
And in the Democratic primary, there are really, really fine folks running, but I know that I have worked with one that, as a colleague, is truly up to the task and I know that they will hold them accountable as we move forward.
Mind saying who that candidate is, who you’ve worked with before?
Letitia James. And honestly having that office as a resource is going to be truly, truly important on so many different levels. I want to see our attorney general protect the investment of those union members in their homes against the predatory lenders and all those things that go after homeowners. I want to make sure that they are held accountable and so forth. And when you’re talking to workers, what impacts them on and off the job? That’s what I’m looking for for the AG. We have a number of great partners, elected, labor activists, advocates, and it doesn’t happen in the backroom. Nobody does this on their own. And we have to use that union mantra of building coalitions and that’s certainly what makes us stronger.
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