What had become almost a quaint relic of the past—meaningful bargaining between the city and its labor unions—came galloping back into play last week.

The Municipal Labor Committee met with de Blasio administration officials led by Labor Commissioner Bob Linn to have their first discussion on ways to reduce health-benefit costs. MLC Chair Harry Nespoli noted the change in the negotiating climate after the hour-long meeting concluded by remarking that discussions with the previous administration on the subject wouldn’t have lasted nearly that long.

That wasn’t a lament for the days of brevity. Conversations grew short and then nonexistent during the last term of the prior administration because Mayor Bloomberg was intent on calling the shots rather than talking in a collaborative fashion, to the point where he issued a Request for Proposals for a health-care provider without consulting the unions. He also served up a my-way-or-the-highway approach to wage-contract talks, ending meaningful discussions midway through a contract round and shutting out some key unions from the 4-percent pay hikes he granted to the rest of the workforce and insisting that from then on any raises would have to be offset by concessions.

Now that he’s hit the road, Mayor de Blasio has to dig the city out of a major mess, cleaning up the end of that “old” old bargaining round, addressing a more-recent one that actually dates back as far as 2010, and in the process getting a health-benefits deal that could actually free up more money for raises by lowering the city’s fastest-growing costs.

One of the most refreshing aspects of the position Mr. Linn took on his behalf last week was that his bottom line actually was the bottom line. While there has been pressure from some quarters to have employees begin to pay a share of their basic health-care premiums—as do transit workers and state employees—the Labor Commissioner said that not only wasn’t this a make-or-break item, it was low on the list of city priorities. He wants savings; they don’t necessarily have to come from workers’ pockets. Mr. Nespoli and other labor leaders have acknowledged the city is paying too much to provide health care at present and that the costs continue to grow. Having expressed their reluctance to make members pay for part of their premiums, they figure to be open to other money-saving measures.

The other interesting news to emerge on the bargaining front came in a story in the March 15 edition of the New York Times reporting that the de Blasio administration was talking with the United Federation of Teachers about a contract that would run for up to nine years, retroactive to Nov. 1, 2009. One reason for the extended deal—quite likely the longest in the city’s history—would be to potentially stretch out the payment of retroactive raises matching the two 4-percent hikes Mr. Bloomberg agreed to with most city unions before he abruptly cut off bargaining in mid-round after the national financial meltdown began in late 2008.

The back-pay obligation for those raises at this point is at least $3.2 billion for the UFT alone; continuing the long tradition of honoring pay patterns for other unions representing nurses, school supervisors and custodians would swell the tab to $4 billion. The fact that Mr. Bloomberg in his last budget deal nine months ago left no labor reserve means that even with a growing surplus, that payout would be tough to manage—and that’s without considering the “new” old round of bargaining for which the entire workforce has been waiting.

During the non-binding fact-finding proceeding, the UFT last year produced an expert witness who testified that it was legally possible to spread out the back-pay disbursement over several years to ease the burden on the budget. The Bloomberg administration countered, however, that Generally Accepted Accounting Principles prohibited stretching out an obligation past the year in which it came due. The city during the late 1970s reached a wage-deferral agreement with the unions that helped rescue it from bankruptcy, with pay raises it negotiated just before the fiscal crisis hit actually being implemented in the early 1980s, but at the time of the deferral deal, the city was not yet under GAAP.

It’s not clear yet why the new administration agrees with the UFT that the payout can be stretched over several years. But the fact that there is some agreement on that could make reaching a deal much easier.

That doesn’t mean an accord is just around the corner. But there is suddenly a mutual willingness to get bargaining moving again, and have labor and management working together to solve problems. In a figurative sense, it’s a sign that spring has arrived.


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