“Doomsday,” Layoffs, & Monkeys For Sale

It was a perfect show of labor solidarity and strength. On April 29, 20,000 or more public sector union members demonstrated at New York’s City Hall to protest the impending layoffs of anywhere from 4,500 to 15,000 city workers.

The leaders of all the municipal unions, representing 250,000 workers, plus Roger Toussaint of the 35,000-member Transport Workers Union Local 100, Dennis Rivera of the 210,000-member SEIU Local 1199, and Brian McLaughlin of the million-member Central Labor Council were all on the stage demanding that the city solve its fiscal problems at someone else’s expense.

Out in the swelling crowd was a sea of green AFSCME hats, blue United Federation of Teachers hats, and even a sizable delegation from the anti-war coalition United for Peace and Justice. It was New York labor at its most diverse.

Behind this scene, however, was a reality of disagreement and, all too often, inaction at the top. There was disagreement on the alternatives to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s plan for drastic cuts to reduce the city’s $3.8 billion deficit and, until the rally itself, inaction by AFSCME District Council 37 which represents 125,000 workers-half the city’s labor force.

To be sure, a number of unions had rallied and demonstrated on their own. The Uniformed Firefighters marched over the Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall, Professional Staff Congress/AFT rallied in the city and the state capital to stop cuts and tuition hikes at the City University system, and the library workers of AFSCME Local 1930 demonstrated at the main library, displaying a giant inflatable rat.

What was still missing was a unified plan of action from municipal labor as a whole.

CONFLICT + INACTION = BUSINESS AS USUAL

Conflict between New York’s huge public sector unions is nothing new. Nor is inaction or surrender in the face of budget cuts and layoffs. It happened in the 1975 fiscal crisis and when Mayor David Dinkins cut thousands of jobs in the early 1990s.

The leaders of these unions-AFSCME DC 37, the United Federation of Teachers, Teamsters Local 237, Communications Workers Local 1180, and the unions of police and firefighters-couldn’t agree on whether or not to lobby the state legislature in Albany to aid the city, or on whether concessions were worse than layoffs. The argument favoring layoffs being that they are usually temporary, while concessions take years to make up.

Matters were made worse when DC 37, only a couple of years out of a gigantic scandal that unfolded in 1998, faced another leadership ethics problem. The new Executive Director, Lillian Roberts, brought in by the AFSCME International as a reform leader, was accused of giving her nephew’s law firm a $180,000 contract to advise the union’s Benefits Trust Fund. In late April, four months after the ethical practices complaint was filed, she finally canceled the contract.

At the same time, there was a disagreement over what alternatives could be proposed to make up the $600 million in give-backs Mayor Bloomberg was demanding from union members.

Rejecting such concessions altogether, CWA Local 1180 ran a series of ads proposing that the city increase the income tax by 1% on those earning $250,000 or more and raise the minimum corporate tax from $300 to $1,000. Together these increases would raise over $700 million.

For its part, DC 37 emphasized reducing outside contractors. By various estimates mentioned in the city’s independent civil service newspaper, The Chief, such contracts cost from 15% to 67% more than in-house work.

The Municipal Labor Council, an official body representing all the unions covered by the city’s collective bargaining law and chaired by United Federation of Teachers (UFT) President Randi Weingarten, put forward some consensus demands. This plan proposed early retirement for teachers, a stretch-out over time of city pension plan contributions, and a cut-back in outside contractors. The package was supposed to equal the $600 million demanded by the Mayor.

The Mayor dismissed the idea, saying it didn’t add up to the needed concessions. He said if he didn’t get the $600 million from the unions, he’d have to cut 15,000 jobs rather than the 4,500 to 5,000 he would cut in any case. This was dubbed the “Doomsday” budget.

“DOOMSDAY” FROM SCHOOL TO ZOO

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Bloomberg’s “Doomsday” budget targeted schools, city hospitals, libraries, sanitation services, some 40 fire houses, all public pools and neighborhood recreation centers, and even the Brooklyn Zoo, where 200 workers and 800 animals would be let go-the latter stranded or sold.

A central target were 1,000 classroom paraprofessionals, who assist teachers, and a similar number of school aides who staff lunch rooms and offices in the city’s 1,200 schools.

The proposed layoff of these paraprofessionals, which would save an estimated $22 million, came as a $250 million school reorganization plan went into effect. This plan includes hiring 130 managerial employees making six-figure salaries. Most of the paraprofessionals are black and latina. Most of the managers will be white. UFT, which represents the paraprofessionals, is suing the city for racial discrimination.

Meanwhile, on May 1, 3,500 pink slips went out to show the Mayor meant business.

STOPGAP RELIEF

From the beginning, New York State Governor George Pataki made it known he would not come to the aid of a city that supports the biggest public sector economy in the country. He would not do this despite the fact that two of the city’s biggest unions, the UFT and SEIU Local 1199 had backed him for Governor in 2002.

No, Pataki planned to cut $2.4 billion in health and education funds and reduce taxes by $11.5 billion. You scratch my back and I’ll stab yours, he seemed to say to his erstwhile political allies.

It seems, however, that while the city unions were debating and DC 37 hesitating, the NY State AFL-CIO had mounted a unified lobby of state-wide unions in Albany to get the state legislature to pass an aid package for the city and restore state cuts.

The AFL-CIO proposal called for tax increases on income above $100,000 and $200,000. This, they said, would generate $3 billion in revenues. The UFT and SEIU Local 1199 ran TV ads supporting tax increases on high incomes. Finally, DC 37 joined the campaign--late in the day, according to The Chief (May 2, 2003).

Then, the legislature came up with an even larger increase in the top tax rate on individual incomes over $100,000 and family incomes over $150,000, and another increase on all incomes above $500,000. This increase, however, is only temporary and declines over three years and then self-destructs. In other words, it is a stopgap, not a long-range solution.

The other downside of the bill is that it also allows an increase in state and city sales taxes. New York’s City Council quickly passed a sales tax increase of one-eighth of a percent.

Although this may seem small, sales taxes hit working class people much harder than the wealthy. The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy found that currently New Yorkers making $15,000 or less a year spend 9.5% of that income on sales taxes, while those with incomes of $63,400 or higher, who buy a lot more, pay only 1.2%.

The state income tax increase will generate $2.7 billion and restore many of the cuts to schools, city hospitals, and Medicaid. The city sales tax is expected to raise about $700 million a year.

One notable aspect of the AFL-CIO campaign is that it is one of the rare times labor has actually pushed for a tax increase on higher incomes.

The unions, of course, argue that the new state funding makes the layoffs unnecessary. Whether they can now force the Mayor to rescind those layoffs remains to be seen. Disunity, inaction, or even TV ads won’t do it.