City's Largest Labor Group to Meet with de Blasio's Chief Negotiator

By Colby Hamilton on March 11, 2014 10:50am 

 Director of Labor Relations Robert Linn, here during the announcement of his appointment in December, will meet with the Metropolitan Labor Committee on March 11, 2013.
Director of Labor Relations Robert Linn, here during the announcement of his appointment in December, will meet with the Metropolitan Labor Committee on March 11, 2013.
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DNAinfo/Colby Hamilton

CIVIC CENTER — In what some are calling a big step forward in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s efforts to iron out contract issues with the city’s unions, his chief labor negotiator is meeting Tuesday with members of the Municipal Labor Committee.

The group represents the city’s uniform and non-uniform unions.

The conversation between Robert Linn and committee leaders is expected to touch on healthcare costs — something city officials have made clear they expect to be part of contract negotiations.

On Monday, First Deputy Mayor Tony Shorris continued to echo what others on de Blasio’s team have said about the need to tackle healthcare costs going forward.

“We have a huge risk in our healthcare benefits and we have to find a way to make a dent in that,” Shorris said during an event hosted by Crain’s New York Business.

Much of the cost of the 152 outstanding labor negotiations have focused on settlements on back pay and raise rates going forward, which the city’s Independent Budget Office recently said could cost the city as much as $7 billion this year alone.

Yet the amount of money the city is expected to pay next year in fringe benefits alone — with healthcare being the primary cost driver — will eclipse that figure, according to the Mayor’s preliminary budget released last month.

The city estimates it will pay $7.5 billion in fringe benefits in the next fiscal year, which begins in July. Three years from now, that cost will balloon to $9.2 billon.

That’s nearly a billion dollars more than what the city estimates it will spend on all of its uniformed forces combined during that same year.

The first step in addressing healthcare costs begins with the MLC, which has played a key role in healthcare negotiations in the past, said the group’s chairman, Harry Nespoli.

“We’ve done it many times,” he said.

Nespoli said he’s encouraged by the efforts towards labor made so far by de Blasio, who he said couldn’t do much worse than his predecessor.

“We've still got a bad taste in our mouths,” Nespoli said, adding the Bloomberg administration “didn't even want to sit down and talk” about outstanding labor agreements.

“Right now it seems like this administration is willing to meet and discuss how we can work together and that's outstanding,” he said. “When you can sit down and talk and people can jot things down, it's good for you.”

Nespoli said expects “nothing with percentages” for individual union wage increases to come out of Tuesday's meeting with Linn, but said it could “open the door for other unions to set up a meeting” with the administration to discuss healthcare costs.

Linn did not respond to a request for an interview.

Arthur Cheliotes, head of the MLC-affiliated Communication Workers of America Local 1180, said he shares Nespoli’s optimism over de Blasio’s approach so far.

“If there's ways to do things better, that's efficient, that delivers a better quality of care to our members, we’re open to discussing them,” he said.

However, Cheliotes said he wouldn’t support any healthcare deal that appeared to be a wage increase to simply cover new healthcare costs for members.

“That's stupid. There's no other way to describe it,” he said.

Ed Ott, the former executive director of the trade union-backed New York City Central Labor Council, said the path forward between the unions and the new administration would be built from small successes.

“They’ve got to try to solve some small stuff, not the two biggest questions which are wages and healthcare,” he said.

“I would think we’re going to see some more ‘settling the things we can settle’ and build a level of trust back up,” he said.

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