Workers’ Correspondence

How can public workers win decent contracts, given government insistence that contracts be funded by givebacks? How can public workers defend their hard-won health care benefits and pensions?

These questions are being discussed by members of District Council 37 AFSCME, New York City’s largest union. DC 37’s 120,000 members are hospital workers, librarians, engineers, social workers, nurses, laborers, park workers and clerical workers, among others.

On July 17, a tentative contract between the city and DC 37 was announced. The contract consists of wage gains of an immediate 3.1 percent retroactive to July 1, 2005, followed by 2 percent and 4 percent increases in the second and third years of the 32-month contract. Reportedly, there are no givebacks of the sort that marked DC 37’s previous contract.

The negotiations for the new contract took place at a time when the city is enjoying a surplus of $5 billion. This is due to tax revenue on increasing profits of the banks and corporations, many of which are headquartered in New York City. But it is also due to the productivity of municipal workers, who make the city’s wheels turn every day in the shadows of Wall Street.

DC 37 members were dissatisfied with the previous contract three years ago, which consisted of extremely modest wage increases paid for by a lower starting salary and reduced benefits for new hires. The Bloomberg administration used that agreement as a wedge to drive down later contract agreements for teachers, sanitation workers and police.

The transit workers strike last December put management under pressure to settle the DC 37 contract relatively quickly. Transit workers’ refusal to “sell out the unborn,” in the words of TWU Local 100 President Roger Toussaint, captured the imagination of the New York City labor movement and demonstrated to management that municipal workers are willing to strike despite the Taylor Law penalties.

The strike was only limited at the time by the degree of labor solidarity in the city’s labor movement. A one-day solidarity strike by AFSCME workers, in conjunction with the rest of labor, for instance, would have gone a long way toward turning the situation around.

The cost of living in NYC has increased sharply. Condos for the rich are replacing affordable housing at an alarming rate. The new contract’s provision that ends residency requirements is a tacit recognition of the fact that municipal workers can no longer afford to live in NYC. The average salary of a DC 37 member, the majority of whom are African American women, is $28,000 a year.

The city’s budget surplus and upwards of 3 percent inflation a year are contributing factors to this year’s contract gains. Other important factors were the threat posed by a recently formed bargaining coalition consisting of teachers, sanitation and 18 other unions, led by Municipal Labor Committee Chair Randi Weingarten of the United Federation of Teachers, and the fear by management of accelerating the political momentum of the Taylor Law reform campaign. This campaign, launched in the wake of the transit strike, has already achieved modest legislative success.

The contract’s modest wage gains are welcome to DC 37 members. But clearly the announcement of a contract settlement is at best a breathing space. The city’s campaign for pension and health care givebacks now moves to negotiations with the other municipal unions, represented in the Municipal Labor Committee, and the state Legislature in Albany, where such changes must be constitutionally mandated.

This also means a fight by municipal unions for a single-payer health care system along the lines of the Medicare for All Act (HR 676). Regardless of the wage gains negotiated in this contract, DC 37 must now take up the fight to preserve decent pensions and health care benefits for municipal workers in conjunction with the rest of the city’s unions represented in the Municipal Labor Committee.

— New York City court worker