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New York Labor Unrest Mounting in Tough Talks

July 14, 2008
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First the governor of New York was forced to intervene to prevent a utility workers strike. Then cement truck drivers walked off their jobs, disrupting work at construction sites. Now, as the economy continues to sputter, tensions between labor and management in New York are likely to grow.

During the past few years, company executives would walk into a room full of union negotiators and grouse about higher costs because they were usually the ones bearing the brunt of those increases, says Jeff Pollack, an attorney who is negotiating a contract for a school bus company with TWU Local 100.

“Now you go in and say, ‘Fuel is killing us,’ and labor says, ‘Us too,’ ” said Pollack, who heads the labor and employment practice at Mintz & Gold. “It makes for a much tougher negotiation.”

With inflation in the New York City area up 4 percent from a year ago, workers are fighting for larger raises. Rising food and gas prices are making it tough to keep up with the cost of living.

Those who pay their salaries and benefits are fighting back just as vehemently, pointing to the sour economy, escalating costs of health care and difficulties funding pension plans as reasons to keep a lid on wage increases.

Collective bargaining is only going to get trickier as the downturn deepens.

“In light of the economic downturn, prudence is the touchstone,” said Paul Salvatore, co-chair of Proskauer Rose’s global labor and employment law department, who just negotiated a deal for actors on behalf of the Broadway League and a security officer contract for the Realty Advisory Board. “You want to make sure you’re preserving as many jobs as possible, even if wage gains are not as significant as the union would like.”

In the past month, negotiations across the city have been increasingly confrontational. Consolidated Edison workers narrowly avoided a strike after contentious bargaining and the governor’s intervention, and cement truck drivers walked picket lines for 10 days before a deal was struck late last week.

City University of New York professors, meanwhile, worked without a contract for nine months, and taxi drivers, who can't bargain collectively because they don't belong to a union, are lobbying the city for a $1 fuel surcharge.

Verizon Telecom workers will be the next group to take labor’s center stage. A strike vote is expected to affirm the willingness of 65,000 Verizon workers on the East Coast to walk off their jobs if negotiations do not produce a deal by August 2.

Wages, health care and protection of union jobs are the main sticking points.

“Because of the economy and how bad it is, everybody’s ready to strike,” said Bronx field technician Jerome Paredes. “We’re almost at rock bottom. If they asked us to start paying for medical benefits, it would be almost impossible to live.”

A spokesman for Verizon said the company will bargain in good faith and hopes to agree on a fair contract before the deadline.

Contracts covering thousands of security officers are also set to expire this summer, and SEIU Local 32BJ is negotiating with Allied Barton, Securitas/Burns and other companies.

“The spikes in gas, rent and groceries could throw thousands of working but poor New Yorkers into absolute poverty,” said Kevin Doyle, the union’s executive vice president. “Profitable companies have no excuse when it comes to ensuring that all of their workers receive the wages, health care and benefits they need to make ends meet.”
 
Of course, many companies are also struggling to make ends meet.

“The economy is squeezing both sides,” said Bert Pogrebin, an employment attorney at Littler Mendelson.

Pogrebin just negotiated a contract on behalf of The Village Voice, where increased health care costs put pressure on wages. The paper and UAW Local 2110 compromised on a cheaper health care plan they hope will stabilize costs.

Indeed, the flagging economy is forcing negotiators to improvise. Some, like the Communication Workers of America and Verizon, are entering into negotiations earlier than usual.

TWU Local 100 and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority have started bargaining in advance of a mid-January deadline in an attempt to avoid a strike like the one that crippled the city nearly three years ago.

“Projections of public revenue continue to go south,” says a statement to members on the Local 100 Web site. “This situation is already casting a dark cloud over labor negotiations.”

Filed by Daniel Massey of Crain’s New York Business, a sister publication of Workforce Management. To comment, e-mail editors@workforce.com.

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