NYC Takes Initial Step on Labor Talks

A group of New York City's municipal labor leaders held their first of many meetings with city labor negotiators Tuesday, with the goal of finding potential savings on health benefits for city workers. 

Mayor Bill de Blasio's Director of Labor Relations Bob Linn and his staff sat down with the Municipal Labor Commitee to set the parameters for future negotiations. The MLC is a coalition of unions that represents over 300,000 members of the city's workforce, and negotiates health benefits with city officials on behalf of the public employees. Harry Nespoli, the chairman of the Labor Committee and president of the Uniformed Sanitationmen's Association, deemed the meeting "constructive," saying that Linn and his staff made a "very good" presentation on areas where the unions could target money for savings, with healthcare an obvious starting point. 

Nespoli acknowledged that health care costs the city a lot of money, but added that he was happy with Emblem, the insurance carrier that provides coverage for his union. He said that, at some point, he would like to bring Emblem and other insurance carriers to the table to see where they can help cut costs. 

But before any serious negotiations commence on health benefits, Nespoli said the city must settle the long-expired contracts for the municipal unions that did not receive wage hikes during the previous bargaining round. Those unions are reportedly seeking more than $7 billion in retroactive pay increases. 

"We have to get those contracts caught up to where everyone else is before we turn around and finalize savings on health, which is a problem," Nespoli said. "If everyone was dead on square with all the money that their members are owed, then you can move along and look at savings for the next round."

Nespoli said that representatives from the city's Office of Management and Budget attended the meeting, in addition to Linn and his staff at the Office of Labor Relations. There will likely be another meeting in the coming weeks, when they can broach more technical aspects of the health benefits negotiation.

For now, Nespoli was encouraged that the city showed a willingness to negotiate in good faith, a stark contrast to former mayor Michael Bloomberg's icy relationship with unions, which came to a head with the administration's intransigence at the bargaining table during his third term. 

"The last two years, when you wanted to sit down and talk to the administration, nobody would listen," Nespoli said. "All they wanted to do is say, 'This is it,' no discussions. They didn’t want to reach an agreement on any of the things they wanted to implement. They wanted to come in and dictate to unions. You don’t do that."

Yet Arthur Cheliotes, the president of the Communication Workers of America Local 1180 and a member of the MLC steering committee, cautioned that while the meeting was productive, there is still a long road ahead. 

"This is 'Act One, Scene One' of a very long play," he said.