In the wake of the arbitration award that allowed the de Blasio administration to delay by nine months half of its $900-million payment covering retroactive wages to United Federation of Teachers members, while other unions scrambled to find ways to offer comparable labor savings, one usually clear-headed analyst was denouncing the transaction as compounding an illegal activity.
In an Oct. 12 column in the New York Post, Nicole Gelinas argued that the 2014 contract under which the city was allowed to stretch out payment of $3.6 billion in back wages to UFT members had violated the state's balanced-budget law, and scolded the state Financial Control Board for having "incorrectly signed off on this fiction" that the payments weren't retroactive pay.
She concluded the column by demanding that the FCB, which she stated was "controlled by Gov. Cuomo," should step in and, after presumably spanking itself for being a party to this scam six years ago, ask state legislators to pass a bill forbidding such practices and freezing wages.
The Manhattan Institute, where Ms. Gelinas is a senior fellow, bills her as an "urban economics expert." While we disagree with some of her opinions, we can't quarrel with that description, and she sometimes steps out of the economic realm to offer solid musings about topics ranging from life in the city to mass transit.
But she is way off the mark here, and on matters that go beyond the expectation that Governor Cuomo might prod the FCB on this issue because it would give him another chance to make Mayor de Blasio's teeth hurt.
The Governor is practiced in the legislative art of "The Big Ugly," in which the state budget has a series of questionable maneuvers rolled into it in the name of addressing non-budgetary priorities while getting a spending plan done on time. And so it would shock us—and we don't shock easily where Mr. Cuomo is concerned—if he got involved in the crusade Ms. Gelinas is trying to lead.
If there is a culprit in the pretense that the retro money is a "lump-sum payment" rather than the appropriate distribution of back wages, it is not the current Mayor but rather his predecessor. Michael Bloomberg spent much of his third term in a snit, apparently angered that rather than rewarding him for eight generally good years in office, the voters barely re-elected him because of their unhappiness that he bypassed them with the help of the City Council and the publishers of the city's daily newspapers in evading the Term Limits Law.
One product of his pique was the decision that he would violate two primary rules of the city contract process: pattern bargaining and retroactivity for any raises negotiated after the previous contract had lapsed.
Mayors have benefited from pattern bargaining at least as much as the unions as a whole have, including Mr. Bloomberg, who twice invoked the principle to defend against demands in arbitration by the Police Benevolent Association that it should get significantly larger raises than were obtained by other municipal unions. And a 40-year tradition of retroactivity was the reason that, two months from the end of his second term, he didn't have to worry about Mr. Mulgrew leading a Teachers strike when the UFT contract expired Nov. 1, 2009 without a successor deal in place.
If the UFT had gone to court, it would have prevailed on both issues. Instead, it opted—along with the other unions—to wait for Mr. Bloomberg to return to rational behavior or else sit out his last term and deal with whoever succeeded him.
The terms the UFT eventually got from Mr. de Blasio were not the giveaway its right-wing critics have claimed. The raises under the final seven years of the nine-year pact fell below the rate of inflation, and produced a fair amount of grumbling from other unions at having to accept that as a pattern after they had gotten the two 4-percent raises from Mr. Bloomberg that he later denied the UFT. The city got itself a good deal under the circumstances while also restoring elements of labor stability Mr. Bloomberg had thrown to the wind, as if ignorant of what he or a successor might face if the PBA went into a future arbitration claiming that bargaining patterns no longer mattered based on his capricious conduct.
Chances are, the FCB allowed the 2014 contract to go through because it understood that the "fiction" Ms. Gelinas is railing against cleaned up the mess our previous Mayor left behind. If she wanted to gain redress, her complaint would be better directed toward the man who set the sausage-making in motion.
Mr. de Blasio has enough questionable decisions to answer for without being framed for the ill-considered machinations of his predecessor. In this case, he did the right thing, and anyone evaluating his tenure fairly would put that UFT contract—from the taxpayers' standpoint as well as union members'—on the positive side of the ledger.
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