October 31st, 2009. For the teachers of New York City, this date marks the last day 94,000 of them had a contract with the Bloomberg administration. Since then, the wages for our city’s educators have remained at a standstill, suspended by political tensions over layoffs, attrition and mayoral control drama. On January 1, 2014, the day the new mayor takes office, the union hopes to hit the reset button on contract settlements. When that day comes, the United Federation of Teachers, along with the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, want their money back, placing City Hall and its budget in a financial bind.
On UFT 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’ salaries, which are now frozen at $54,000. For police, that number is a bit smaller, given that the PBA’s contract with the city expired a little over a year later than the teachers’ on July 31, 2010. Patrick Lynch, the PBA chieftain, is demanding $530 million from the mayor, arguing that veterans would have $81,444 in their wallets if a labor pact still existed, up $5,000 from the current salaries.
Combined, these totals come out to around $3.8 billion in back wages. But, with threats from Hizzoner of $1.5 billion in cuts this year and next, as well as a soon-to-be-closed deficit of $1.1 billion in the city’s expenses, where do the labor forces expect this money to come from?
Unexpected surpluses. Richard Riley, chief spokesperson for the teachers’ union, pointed me to an editorial by President Mulgrew to be published today in the UFT newsletter. In it, the union chief evokes a familiar narrative between labor and government. “For the first time ever, not a single New York City municipal labor union has a contract–a crowning achievement for Bloomberg’s disastrous time in office,” he writes.
From the mayor’s perspective, the years after the Great Recession have left the city’s finances in disarray, forcing Bloomberg to cry deficit as budget shortfalls loomed. Hence why there has not been a single dollar in the budget for raises in almost half a decade. But, according to Mulgrew, the money is there, waiting to be given back to the city’s workers:
The mayor has a budget credibility problem. Just look at the last few years. In June 2010, he said there was no money for the next fiscal year and eliminated the money reserved for municipal workers’ raises, but the city in fact had a $3.75 billion surplus. In 2012, the mayor’s $3.16 billion deficit magically turned out to be a $2.47 billion surplus. And this year, the mayor said we’d be short $4.85 billion, but we’re actually on track to have a surplus of $2.2 billion. Even nonpartisan fiscal monitors like the Independent Budget Office, known for its conservative budget estimates, say there is money. Either Mayor Bloomberg needs remediation in math, or he needs to stop misleading the public to force through his anti-worker, pro-privatization austerity measures.
While the mayor has crystal-balled deficits left and right, the guessing game for surpluses is a plague of city politics. The Independent Budget Office’s predictions seem to fluctuate monthly, along with the comptrollers of the city and state. Regardless, one thing is true: New York City has had a surplus for some time now. And, if this pattern described by Mulgrew continues, the bad news of a $811 million shortfall this year will probably be met with good news worth billions.
Where does that leave the mayoral prospects? For electoral purposes, all the Democratic candidates have promised to sit down with the unions and settle scores once and for all. Anthony Weiner made that clear the other day to the teachers union; Bill de Blasio is positing himself as the middle class defender; John Liu just picked up the DC37 endorsement; and Christine Quinn hopes to brush Bloomberg’s legacy from her shoulders to seem negotiable to the forces that despise her boss.
If those totals from the back wages match up, the expected payback will make up the majority of what the surplus pays out to, whatever that may be. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the new mayor will hand over billions to the workers on Day One. The city will have other expenses to pay, like all the backlog of promises made by councilmembers.
If the unions are demanding full, immediate payback, they probably shouldn’t get their hopes up.