The Brooklyn Rail

Mayor Bloomberg's Record With New York's Unions is Pretty Terrible

In his 2006 inaugural address, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg vowed to avoid “partisanship and prejudice.” Over the next three years, he would leap up a hundred spots on Forbes’s Billionaires List, the single largest increase by any individual in the world. Meanwhile, the same mayor who touted his C.E.O.-style managerial abilities (and also cited his financial expertise as the primary reason to overturn term limits) began to steadily undercut City Hall’s relationships with the city workforce.

When Bloomberg took office in 2002, he sought to end the hostile labor climate that had prevailed under his predecessor. “You had someone like Mayor Giuliani, who really did not have great relations with the unions and ended his term leaving all the union contracts unsettled,” Maria Doulis of the Citizens Budget Commission (C.B.C.) recalled. “The unions really felt like they didn’t want to deal with [the Giuliani administration] anymore because they had to deal with three years of wage freezes.”

Bloomberg remedied that situation in the early days of his tenure. He offered the city municipal workers a deal straight out of the private sector playbook: wage increases tied to higher productivity. The catch? The unions would be forced to make concessions with their sacred pensions and benefits.

Remarkably, after eight years of stalemate with the Giuliani administration, few complained. The unions gave in to City Hall, and their paychecks, at last, increased. Through back-and-forth mediation, the businessman had settled a lengthy bargaining war between city government and its workforce.

But the peace didn’t last. The mayor’s second term would become a succession of labor breakdowns; between 2006 and 2010, contracts for the major public sector unions began to expire. In response, the unions would begin to distance themselves from the mayor. Perhaps Bloomberg, a leader originally presumed to be more labor-tolerant than Giuliani, was not so different from his predecessor after all.

To understand how the current gridlock came about, we can highlight the plight of the city’s two largest public sector unions—District Council 37 (D.C. 37) and the United Federation of Teachers (U.F.T.)—as a microcosm of a larger disconnect between Bloomberg’s reputation and his practice over the last several years. By leaving the city’s workforce in contract limbo, Bloomberg is intentionally passing the buck (or lack thereof) to whomever succeeds him on January 1, 2014.

From maintenance workers and technicians to clerical staff, D.C. 37 is an amalgam of occupational variety. With 121,000 members and 54 local chapters in its ranks, the labor organization is New York City’s largest public employee union. In terms of electoral sway, it’s definitely a major voice at the polls, a power that Bloomberg drew upon in 2005 after gaining the union’s endorsement. “In the beginning, D.C. 37 wanted Bloomberg after Giuliani,” D.C. 37 Vice President Michelle Keller told me.

But let history explain the next part. In the fall of 2008, the major banks on Wall Street tripped over a self-created bubble of mortgage debt in the housing crisis, igniting a Great Recession that was years in the making. As with 9/11 and the economic havoc wreaked soon after, it happened in the city’s backyard. Once again, the city council and the mayor faced a deficit worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

From the Bloomberg administration’s perspective, the solution was sacrifice. Unions were given yearly wage increases; however, these came at the same time as the “pension problem” began to dominate editorial board discussion. Pension costs continuously ate away at larger chunks of the city’s overall budget, with the conservative Manhattan Institute eventually claiming there to be $76 billion in unfunded liabilities by mid-2008 (before the crash). As these numbers skyrocketed, the wage increases offered to union members dwindled and the concessions asked from them became more and more unappealing. Further concessions, the union argued, were just not feasible.

Bloomberg disagreed. Because the city controlled the purse, in the mayor’s mind, he could call the shots. The unions, of course, disagreed. “They have the money,” Keller told me. “But we have the workers.”

Asreported by the New York Times, a closed meeting between the heads of D.C. 37 and the mayor in August 2009 produced heated exchanges and ended in a stalemate. But the message from the mayor, which reporter Michael Barbaro described as “blunt, tough-love, take-it-or-leave-it language,” was more than clear.

“The real world is we have to find ways to do more with less. There is no money,” Bloomberg told the workers. When asked about halting layoffs, the mayor demurred. “I can’t promise something I can’t deliver,” he said. “I just won’t do it.” His mute act further infuriated the workers because, as they watched their wages suffer, the city was spending millions of taxpayer dollars on private consultants.

From day one, Bloomberg believed that downsizing and privatizing the public sector would boost results and cut costs. And his hostility in 2009 toward one of his largest union supporters from four years earlier showed that the mayor had no fear of electoral blowback. It was no surprise that Bloomberg’s dismissal of the union’s importance to his future electoral prospects infuriated the workforce. “He bleeds the unions. You cannot believe he’s that mean-spirited,” Keller said in an interview. “There’s a serious threat of privatization. Corporations and consultants are milking us until he’s gone.”

After that showdown with Bloomberg, D.C. 37 handed its endorsement to the Democratic challenger Bill Thompson, who went on to lose in November (though in a closer race than had been predicted). As Professor Mitchell Moss of N.Y.U.’s Wagner School of Public Service argues, the union’s inability to sit down with City Hall and bang out a deal worked in Bloomberg’s favor. “Money doesn’t just appear,” Moss said. “Union leaders are overrating the powers of the mayor; they’ve chosen not to work with him—and it affects them much more.” The bottom line is that March 2009 marked the last time D.C. 37 obtained a wage increase during Bloomberg’s tenure.

In Bloomberg’s relations with the U.F.T., a different kind of friction has developed. The demonstrable success of his efforts to make the Department of Education (D.O.E.), what Doug Turetsky of the Independent Budget Office (I.B.O.) calls, “a test of his mayoralty” has come at the expense of relations with the teachers union.

The D.O.E.’s website tells the story from the administration’s standpoint. Since Bloomberg came to office, a total of 528 schools have been built; the graduation rate has increased 20 percent; classroom size from K-to-12 may have fluctuated a bit but, over the long term, has decreased; and test scores in math and English language arts have shown very substantial gains.

In 2002, the mayor’s first year in office, the D.O.E. budget was $12.71 billion. In the current fiscal year of 2013, it has more than doubled to $24.4 billion, a combination of city, state, and federal funds. Overall, the city’s education budget under Bloomberg is up 91.9 percent in spending over the 12 years he has been in office. The D.O.E. remains the most expensive city office to date, eating up a little more than a third of the mayor’s entire budget for 2013.

“The budgets for agencies are important interims or guide posts, but they don’t tell the whole story,” says Harvey Robins, the budget officer under former Mayor Dinkins. Drawing the ire of the city’s largest teachers union has left a blight on that otherwise impressive education legacy. The relationship went bad over budgetary threats from the mayor’s office, and a shared inability to negotiate has left the union without a contract for almost seven years.

To understand how relations could get to such a low point, one must focus first on Bloomberg, this time in his dedication to overhauling the education system. “We’ve brought a sense of excitement and possibility to teachers, to parents, and to children,” he declared in his 2006 inaugural address. “We’ve given the schools an arts curriculum that is worthy of the nation’s cultural capital. We’ve begun to ensure all our students the first-rate education that is their fundamental civil right.”

The recession that would take hold during his second term threatened all that “excitement and possibility.” Facing deficits, Bloomberg demanded reductions through teacher layoffs and attrition. However, because of federal stimulus funds that injected $1 billion into the city’s budget to avoid education cutbacks, the city council thwarted the mayor’s plans. Restorations were made for the teachers and reductions in the budget were slipped in somewhere else.

By doing so, Amanda Doulis of the C.B.C. told me, the mayor flaunts his executive discretion in budgetary talks. This back-and-forth process would characterize budget talks across all the departments for the remainder of Bloomberg’s time in office (2013 notwithstanding). “Every year, we get this one thing that is like the symbol of why not to cut services,” she said. “One year, it was teachers’ layoffs; next year, it was the firehouses; last year, it was child day care slots.”

Cutbacks in the education budget are a more visceral issue for teachers than they are for most members of most other city unions because pension and fringe benefits like health insurance are partially included in the figures. But, despite the firings and attrition of the past six years, 2013 will see new hiring. In addition, an Albany-issued report entitled “New York City Public School Improvement Before and After Mayoral Control” pointed out that the mayor initially delivered on wages between 2002 and 2007: “from a spending perspective, Mayor Bloomberg’s main contribution [has] substantially increased teacher compensation.”

But in 2007, the negotiations stopped. And three years later, the mayor moved to save some 44,000 teacher positions by enacting a pay freeze. Again, a familiar tactic: the mayor sought fresh avenues in the private sector. “Charter schools and special education have both been fast-growing parts of the education budget in recent years,” explains Courtney Wolf, a policy associate at the Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York.

How fast? Excluding special education programs, data from the I.B.O. shows an increase in funding of 205.4 percent from the Bloomberg administration to New York City charter schools. As of last year, $1.5 billion of the total education budget was headed towards the private sector-managed classrooms while the funds for the central administration of public schooling dropped 25.9 percent.

For the unions, the 2013 mayoral campaign is about filling a power vacuum in City Hall. It presents a moment to undo the past, a window of opportunity where the public employees of New York City can receive new contracts and compensation that’s several years overdue.

D.C. 37 Executive Director Lillian Roberts has demanded retroactive raises worth nearly $3 billion for the unionized municipal workers. On U.F.T. President Michael Mulgrew’s calculator, the city owes its teachers upward of $3.2 billion—an amount that, if spread accordingly to employees, would add $7,000 to teachers’ starting salaries, which are now frozen at $54,000. Together, that’s a $7 billion request, an amount that Bloomberg insists is financially impossible to ask of City Hall.

Come November, Mulgrew has promised to bring over 200,000 voters to the polls. And, for a September primary that’s expecting to see around 600,000 Democrats come to the polls, the U.F.T. is planning to flex its muscles. “We’re not about picking a mayor,” Mulgrew told the Observer’s Jill Colvin. “We’re about making a mayor, making the winner. And that’s what we’re gonna do.”

This time around, the “winner” that the U.F.T.’s delegate assembly went with in mid-June is Bill Thompson, the former Board of Education president and comptroller. In 2009, the U.F.T. sat out the race; given the closeness of the race, the teachers union support could have been the difference.

At the end of May, D.C. 37 gave its backing to current comptroller John Liu—who had an integral role in uncovering CityTime, the worst private contractor scandal of the Bloomberg years and a frequent target of union outcry.

The support for both candidates seems a bit strange when one takes a look at poll numbers: two of the most prominent union players in the Democratic Party have endorsed candidates who have ranked no higher than third in the most recent polls.

Of course, it’s only late June; things can and will change. If the sway at the polls proves true in September’s primaries, the Democratic contender will be forced to respond positively to the unions’ demands. None of the candidates are self-financing their campaign like Bloomberg did (three times); therefore, they need all the support and money they can get, but at the same time they are presumably aware of blowback should they not deliver on their promises.

As of now, both Thompson and Liu have not publicly explained to their respective endorsees exactly how they plan to finance nearly $7 billion in back wages. Thompson has mentioned that he would open new revenue sources by cutting back on the use of consultants, but the total amount of savings there is unclear. Liu, on the other hand, has proposed $15 billion in savings and new revenue in his “People’s Budget,” but it’s not clear how quickly all those gains would be realized.

Where else do the labor forces expect this money to come from?

Unexpected surpluses. While the mayor has crystal-balled deficits left and right, the guessing game for surpluses is a plague of city politics. The I.B.O’s predictions fluctuate monthly, along with those provided by comptrollers of the city and state. Regardless, one thing is true: New York City has had a surplus for some time now.

Richard Riley, chief spokesperson for the teachers’ union, highlighted a piece to me by President Mulgrew published in late May in the U.F.T. newsletter and then repackaged as a Daily News op-ed a month later. As Mulgrew insists, “Bottom line: despite unneeded tax breaks and disastrous outsourcing mistakes, New York’s underlying economic strength and rolling budget surpluses show that the city can afford to make a fair agreement with the people who keep it going. But City Hall has to have the willingness to do so.”

And, if this pattern described by Mulgrew continues, the bad news of an $811 million shortfall this year will probably be met with good news worth billions. If those totals from the back wages match up, then his members may indeed see that retroactive pay materialize. But that’s still a big “if.”

As Bloomberg and his acolytes promote his achievements as mayor, his increasingly hostile relationship with the city workforce won’t be mentioned. “The workforce in the city is becoming more lower-wage because the people have fewer benefits and fewer resources,” Harvey Robins said. “But Bloomberg’s legacy is going to be out there in the lights on Broadway.”

Add to that the negative impact of functioning without contracts for a prolonged period. According to the Fiscal Policy Institute economist James Parrott, “It’s not good for the morale of city workers and, at some point, that’s going to have an effect on the quality of delivery. I think it’s a very risky strategy to have.”

Without contracts, Bloomberg’s legacy left over from D.C. 37 and the U.F.T. stands as an absolute zero in intrametropolitan diplomacy, widening the reality gap between the internal and external views of New York City’s success in the post 9/11 period. It’s up to the next mayor, whoever that may be, to balance the urban playing field.

Innocent Man Sentenced to Death Under Cruel Texas Law

Kenneth Foster's time is running out.

On Tuesday, August 7, in a six-to-three decision, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied his final writ of habeas corpus, giving the legal green light for his execution. Foster, who is scheduled to die by lethal injection on August 30, is now at the mercy of the merciless Board of Pardons and Paroles. The odds are bad. Five out of seven board members must recommend clemency before Governor Rick Perry will consider it -- and in a state that has executed nearly 400 people in thirty years, clemency has only been granted twice. But Foster's supporters, who are spearheading a letter-writing campaign to the board and governor, are relying on one particularly salient detail to move their minds, if not their hearts: Foster didn't kill anyone.

Foster was convicted for the 1996 murder of Michael LaHood Jr., who was shot following a string of robberies, by a man named Mauriceo Brown. Brown admitted to the shooting and was executed by lethal injection last year. Now Foster faces the same fate. So, if Brown was the shooter, what did the 19-year-old Foster do to get a death sentence? He sat in his car, 80 feet away, unaware that a murder was taking place.

Foster was convicted under Texas's "law of parties," a twist on a felony murder statute that enables a jury to convict a defendant who was not the primary actor in a crime. This can mean sentencing someone to death even if he or she had no proven role in a murder. Texas's law states that "if, in the attempt to carry out a conspiracy to commit one felony, another felony is committed by one of the conspirators, all conspirators are guilty of the felony actually committed, though having no intent to commit it." Defendants, the Texas courts say, can be held responsible for "failing to anticipate" that the "conspiracy" -- in Foster's case, the robberies, for which he was the getaway driver -- would lead to a murder. Foster's sentence, death row prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal recently commented, "criminalizes presence, not actions."

In theory, the law of parties is "a well-recognized legal document," says Houston defense attorney Clifford Gunter, and most states with the death penalty on the books include a similar provision for "non-triggermen." Nevertheless, critics of the Texas law say it's an aberration -- a slippery legal statute that stands in direct violation of the 1982 Supreme Court decision in Enmund v. Florida. Still the "prevailing view," according to Gunter, Enmund held that the death penalty was unconstitutional for a defendant "who aids and abets a felony in the course of which a murder is committed by others but who does not himself kill, attempt to kill, or intend that a killing take place or that lethal force will be employed." In Texas today, the law or parties says exactly the opposite.

Even more troubling is the law in practice. When Justice Byron White wrote the Enmund decision in 1982, he observed that the Court was not aware of a single execution of someone who did not kill or intend to kill. What a difference another quarter-century makes. Months after Enmund was decided, Texas executed its first prisoner since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976. In the tidal wave of capital cases that followed, numerous defendants would be sentenced to die under the law of parties.

One was Norman Green. Green was charged for a murder during a botched robbery in an electronics store in 1985. He got death. His accomplice, the man who actually pulled the trigger, got life. The arbitrary result exemplifies what Green's appellate lawyer, Verna Langham -- who also handled Kenneth Foster's first appeal -- sees as the danger of the law of parties. "[It] is subject to such loose interpretation," she told the Austin Chronicle in 2005. "A kid in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people can end up being sentenced to death." Green was executed in 1999.

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The Right to Party

A few years ago, when I was a reporter in Chicago, I did a story on a phenomenon I called "The New Prohibition." The city, for various reasons, was shutting down neighborhood bars. In poor black neighborhoods, taverns were the targets of moralistic church crusaders. In gentrifying neighborhoods, they were the bête noire of noise-averse yuppies. What was wrong with Mayor Daley? I asked. Didn't he want Chicago to be fun anymore?

The article garnered a bit of local attention. I appeared on an episode of a nightly public-affairs show. For once, a piece of mine actually got a few letters to the editor. And I decided to take it further. I did a local NPR radio commentary in which I called, tongue-in-cheekly, for a new political party, "The Party Party," that would campaign to make Chicago the freewheeling town I imagined it had once been.

Oh, how naïve I was then, and how foolish I feel now! Those little tavern raids and precinct vote-dry initiatives were nothing, a little internecine tap-dance, compared to the assault on fun currently being waged by the federal government. Our right to party is being attacked by forces far more powerful, more sinister, and more organized than Mayor Daley's liquor-law enforcement bureaucracy. Everything fun about America is under serious threat.

Let's review the evidence of the last few months.

In late February, DEA and Department of Justice officials arrested 55 people and seized thousands of dollars of drug paraphernalia during "Operation Pipe Dreams." The arrests mainly targeted online bong dealers, who attorney general John Ashcroft claimed had "invaded the homes of families across the country without their knowledge." But also included in the arrests were employees of several head shops in Pittsburgh, where the investigation was centered. The feds even raided the California home of Tommy Chong, who in mid-May pleaded guilty to conspiring to sell drug paraphernalia. The most stunning quote from the whole affair came from acting DEA chief John Brown, who said, "People selling drug paraphernalia are in essence no different than drug dealers. They are as much a part of drug trafficking as silencers are a part of criminal homicide.''

The government is equating Tommy Chong with murderous criminals. Perhaps next they'll haul in Rodney Dangerfield and the inflatable pilot from Airplane! Something is wrong. Very wrong.

In March, Senator Joe Biden of Delaware managed to sneak the RAVE act through as an attachment to a bill establishing a national warning system about child abductions. RAVE stands for, amazingly, Reducing Americans' Vulnerability to Ecstasy. But its main targets are concert promoters and club owners, whom the act holds to an absurd standard.

According to the law, it is illegal to "manage or control any place, whether permanently or temporarily, either as an owner, lessee, agent, employee, occupant, or mortgagee, and knowingly and intentionally rent, lease, profit from, or make available for use, with or without compensation, the place for the purpose of unlawfully manufacturing, storing, distributing, or using a controlled substance."

This definition was derived from a 20-year-old federal law that permitted raids on "crackhouses." The law is so broad that you could have 10 people over for dinner, put on some loud music, and you've got yourself a rave. If someone lights a joint at your "rave," and the neighbors complain about the music, and the police are in a bad mood that night, you face decades in prison. Suddenly everyone is a potential drug criminal and it's doubly dangerous if there's dancing involved.

And this just in: In late May, a DEA agent in Montana threatened a venue owner with a $250,000 fine, under the RAVE Act, if she hosted a joint benefit for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and Students For Sensible Drug Policy. The event was canceled. The RAVE Act has officially arrived.

Keep in mind that these are Democrats pushing these laws. This War On Fun is not single-party. That said, the Republicans seem to have a serious problem with sex. The federal government's financial commitment to "abstinence education" reached a new high this year. When I say a new high, I mean $120 million. This is not the sex education we received in high school. According to federal guidelines for applying for abstinence education grants, a federally funded program must, among other things, teach "abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage as the expected standard for all school age children," and that "a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity."

From personal experience, I will agree with certain tenets, such as the fact that "drug use increases vulnerability to sexual advances," and I cannot argue with the fact that "sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects," but is this really something that needs to be legislated? Can you imagine being a teenager today in this context? Teen pregnancy and STDs are a problem, for certain. But is the answer really organizations like Pennsylvania's Silver Ring Thing, which, in exchange for $12 and a pledge of abstinence until marriage, offers high-school students a silver ring and a Bible? Sounds like a bad trade to me. Couldn't they at least throw a couple of condoms into the gift pack, just to make sure?

Lest we think that these phenomena, which seem to be loosely linked, are just the usual mix of anti-drug nonsense and hypocritical fundamentalism, we should think again. Journalist Eric Schlosser, in his excellent new book "Reefer Madness," drops the stunning statistic that more than 20,000 Americans are in prison for marijuana-related "crimes." But the current trend in policy goes far beyond that. Under the RAVE act, you're guilty by association with marijuana smokers.

Abstinence education had a foothold during Bill Clinton's America, too, but now there's an extra moral force, and lots more money, behind the preaching. When Pennsylvania Rick Santorum made his controversial remarks in April about not approving of homosexual "acts," he also said, "the idea is that the state doesn't have rights to limit individuals' wants and passions. I disagree with that. I think we absolutely have rights because there are consequences to letting people live out whatever wants or passions they desire. And we're seeing it in our society."

What is he talking about? What consequences? As far as I'm concerned, that phrase, from a leading Republican Senator, is an official government declaration of a War On Fun. What exactly would be Rick Santorum's idea of a good party? One where nobody got drunk or high, where nobody hooked up, and where nobody danced with abandon? Why, that doesn't sound like a party. It sounds like church.

I've had enough.

This time, for real, I'm calling for the establishment of a Party Party, or, at the very least, for a Party Party attitude. I'm issuing a call to arms for those of us always in need of, as the great Jeff Spicoli once said, tasty waves and a cool buzz. Of course there are many issues in the world that are more pressing, and we should continue to press them. But Saturday night eventually comes even for the most politically committed. These are tense times. People want to loosen the steam valve a little bit. They want to participate in culture outside of the jurisdiction of federal "morality" educators. We don't want the government telling us how to spend our free time, sussing out and prosecuting casual drug users and harassing nightclub owners. And for heaven's sake, give the kids some condoms.

Sex and drugs and live music make life great. These are the kinds of things that were outlawed in Taliban-run Afghanistan. If they can't be legal and easy in America, then I don't want to live here anymore. I want to live in a place where drugs and sex are tolerated, where the government provides a sane level of social services, where religion isn't always threatening to take over the state. Amsterdam. It always comes back to Amsterdam.

Americans, we have to party. It is our right. And we have to fight for that right. Yes, you heard me. We have to show the moralizers that they cannot win.

We have to fight for our right to party.

Neal Pollack is the author of "The Neal Pollack Anthology Of American Literature" and "Beneath The Axis Of Evil." HarperCollins will publish his first novel, "Never Mind the Pollacks," in September. He lives in Austin, Texas.

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