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New York Post

 

Sunshine Needed For NY Labor Pacts

August 17, 2009

By Nicole Gelinas

BY state law, public-sector labor negotiations happen in secret. To see why the reverse should be true, look at what we know (and suspect) about the twisty path to the outrageous new MTA/TWU contract -- in which it smells like the pols and the state-run MTA adeptly used that secrecy to hoodwink the public.

For most of last year, as the MTA’s revenues fell and the economy festered, the authority seemed to want to hold the line on raises for its 35,000 members of the Transport Workers union -- budgeting three years of 1.47 percent hikes each.

But late last year, with the public in the dark, the MTA became more generous, offering two raises of 4 percent each and a third for 3.5 percent. Then it privately backtracked a bit, offering 3.25 percent a year.

In late December, however, the MTA withdrew that offer (again, without public knowledge) retreating to 1.47 percent for one year, with the rest to be decided later according to economic conditions. Why the oscillations?

They may reflect intense -- and inappropriate -- political pressure. In more than doubling its wage offers to 4 percent, the MTA “was just doing what the governor told it to do,” said one observer. That is, it gave in to an explicit request, or demand, that it offer unaffordable wage hikes.

Terrible, but unsurprising. But why, then, did it follow with the last-minute backtrack, slashing its offer?

Well, Mayor Bloomberg objected strenuously to the deal (even though he was offering his own workforce similarly too-generous pay hikes). And, while, the mayor doesn’t control the MTA, he can still cause political problems for the agency.

We do know this: By slashing its offer, the MTA forced the contract into arbitration. Yet it seems that wages were the only thing that they disagreed about. The MTA had already agreed to a health-care concession, and the union to work-rule changes that the MTA seemed happy with.

There was no real problem requiring arbitration -- until the MTA cut its wage offer at the last minute.

But the arbitration benefited every player. With state panelists -- one each chosen to represent the MTA, the TWU and the public -- deciding the deal, the final contract would be safe from any political accountability, like criticism from the mayor or the public.

The governor, perhaps, wanted it both ways: political control without the political blowback.

Going to arbitration, instead of negotiating, also let the MTA look like a victim of the arbitrators’ decisions, rather than its own weakness.

Plus, arbitration kept the contract out of the public eye all spring, when the Legislature & Co. discussed and ultimately approved a $1.8 billion-a-year MTA bailout.

If the MTA had had to release details of its generous offers in the fall, the press would’ve had a chance to ask MTA officials to justify their generous offers back then -- and to ask the governor whether he supported generous raises not available in the private sector, too, even as taxpayers were being asked to fork over more.

Bloomberg could have raised his objections publicly, when it mattered. And everyone who wound up supporting the bailout would’ve seen that much more of that windfall would go toward outrageous raises, rather than toward the capital investment in subway cars, new lines and the like that the city needs.

Maybe a few pols would’ve even dared to call for at least modest labor concessions -- from workers averaging nearly $65,000 a year, plus benefits -- as a condition of any bailout.

Adding to the murk, and blame avoidance, now is that the MTA may appeal the arbitrators’ decision -- even though it’s close to what the MTA supposedly wanted eight months ago.

The Post’s suggestion last week that “this deal needs a healthy dose of sunlight” is sound.

An independent inquiry now would greatly benefit the public by forcing the governor, the mayor and the MTA brass to answer questions about this deal and the political pressures surrounding it.

The MTA, after all, is supposed to make its own indepen dent decisions apart from the governor and the mayor. If that’s all a sham, we should know, so that we can put the blame squarely where it belongs for rotten agreements.

(A sham is certainly what Gov. Paterson’s pick to run the MTA, Jay Walder, seems to think it is; he wants an $850,000 golden parachute in his contract to buy him independence from the pols.)

In seven other states, such labor negotiations are subject to open-meetings laws. It’s time to change New York law so that the public can know the details of contracts before they happen.

At minimum, the MTA and other government entities should have to disclose the firm details of changing offers and requests at well-defined times throughout negotiations.

With “sunshine” rules in place, at least no one would’ve been in the dark about the truth when the MTA was begging for its multibillion-dollar bailout.

Original Source: http://www.nypost.com/seven/08172009/postopinion/opedcolumnists/sunshine_needed_for_ny_labor_pacts_184896.htm

 

 
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