Streams

Behind the Layoffs, Strain Between City Hall and the Union

Wednesday, October 05, 2011 - 12:12 PM

With more than 700 school aides facing their last day at work on Friday, barring a last-minute deal, the Bloomberg administration is blaming the school aides’ powerful labor union, District Council 37, for not doing enough to prevent the layoffs.

The Bloomberg administration’s push to assign blame for the latest round of layoffs — which will overwhelmingly affect workers from District Council 37 — underlines the administration’s strained relationship with that union and its executive director, Lillian Roberts.

But Ms. Roberts said she held Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg responsible for the layoffs, calling them “outrageous” and “totally unnecessary,” and she repeatedly emphasizes that they disproportionately hit the city’s lowest-paid workers and poorest school districts.

With the school aides and many parents upset about the layoffs, both the Bloomberg administration and District Council 37 — the city’s largest municipal union, with 120,000 members — seem eager to blame the other side. And as so often happens in labor disputes, especially when there is bad blood between the two sides, each side presents a vastly different view of events.

City officials maintain that they were forced to order the layoffs because, they say, Ms. Roberts, 83, the head of the council since 2002, was the chief obstacle to a deal proposed last spring that would have tapped more than $200 million from a multi-union health fund to help plug a budget hole.

City officials say that all the other municipal unions were ready to accept such a deal, but for Ms. Roberts’s stolid opposition.

“We gave D.C. 37 every opportunity to avoid this situation months ago and they rejected our proposals,” said Howard Wolfson, deputy mayor for governmental affairs.

Dennis M. Walcott, the schools chancellor, voiced regret about the layoffs of the school aides, parent coordinators and other members of school support staffs who would lose their jobs at 350 schools across the city.

“I am sympathetic to these workers, and we tried very hard during the spring budget negotiations to work with D.C. 37 and the other unions to find savings to make up for huge losses in federal and state funding,” Mr. Walcott said.

He noted that the city had worked out a deal with the United Federation of Teachers to avoid laying off thousands of teachers. In a move that city official say will save $60 million, that union agreed to suspend sabbaticals for a year and to let teachers in a reserve pool who do not have full-time assignments serve as substitute teachers.

“In part because other unions would not work with us to find more savings, schools had to absorb cuts to their budgets,” Mr. Walcott said. He said that it was left to the principals to make the best staffing decisions for their schools, and many of them chose to let school aides go rather than teachers.

In an interview, Ms. Roberts denied that District Council 37 was the main obstacle to dipping into the union-controlled health fund, saying two-thirds of the city’s municipal unions opposed the idea.

But she did not hide her opposition to the plan. “The mayor wants to crack into that fund so he can come back and back for more,” she said.

She said the deal would have meant higher medical co-payments for city employees — something she said she could not support because it would be a big strain for her union’s members, like school aides who often earn $14,000 a year.

She said that her union agreed in 2009 to tap the health stabilization fund to help the city with its deficit, but the city laid off 500 school aides later that year.

“There was mistrust from the get-go in this year's negotiations,” said Henry Garrido, the district council’s associate director.

Harry Nespoli, the chairman of the Municipal Labor Committee, who is also the president of the Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association, took issue with City Hall’s version of what happened — that it dropped its push to tap the health fund because of the district council’s opposition.

“I don’t know why they’re singling out D.C. 37, to tell the truth,” Mr. Nespoli said. There was widespread mistrust among unions about the city’s push to tap the fund, he said, adding that progress was being made when the Bloomberg administration suddenly pulled out of the talks.

He speculated that the administration pulled out because it wanted to rethink its strategy after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo had recently exacted such large concessions, including a three-year wage freeze, from the state’s largest public employees' union.

While what happened last spring remains unclear, what is clear is that the relationship between the mayor and Ms. Roberts is far worse than that of previous mayors and leaders of District Council 37.

In the 1970s, the union’s executive director, Victor Gotbaum, famously worked with the mayor, Abraham D. Beame, to help rescue the city from default. In the 1990s, its executive director, Stanley Hill, had a strong relationship with Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, once agreeing to a two-year wage freeze to help the city with its budget problems.

Joshua Freeman, a labor historian at the City University Graduate Center, said Ms. Roberts was definitely not one of Mr. Bloomberg’s favorites.

“She tends to dig in her heels,” he said. “And District Council 37’s opposition to his re-election didn’t make her a favorite.”

Her unsparing words have also won her few fans at City Hall. When the mayor threatened layoffs early this year, she said, “I think there's a war on public schools and a war on poor people.” She often uses the words “reckless” and “outrageous” to describe Mr. Bloomberg’s actions.

One administration official said that the district council’s political clout and operations were so weak that her union’s opposition to the mayor’s re-election was hardly noticed.

Ms. Roberts complained that the Bloomberg administration had paid little attention to her union’s money-savings proposals — like collecting unpaid taxes from various corporations — that might have helped avoid layoffs.

She also criticized the city for declining to negotiate about a plan District Council 37 put forward in recent weeks to avoid layoffs that included having school aides work no more than four hours a day and to have many take furloughs.

“The union came to the table and made offers for some concessions,” said Mr. Garrido, the union’s associate director. “We engaged in a process of good faith, and they rejected all of those proposals.”

But city officials said they did not negotiate over those proposals because they would have created far too much havoc for school principals.

“They were just too little too late,” a Bloomberg administration official said.

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