COBA President: City Asking Too Much For No-Layoff Guarantee

By: 
RICHARD STEIER

Benny Boscio  took office as president of the Correction Officers' Benevolent Association riding a wave of discontent that had its roots in the criminal behavior of former President Norman Seabrook but also washed out a contract deal reached by Mr. Seabrook's successor, Elias Husamudeen that had to be cobbled together with new elements reflecting the urgency brought by the coronavirus.

The damage COVID-19 has done to the city's economy created a different kind of urgency for the de Blasio administration, which has demanded $1 billion in givebacks from the municipal unions as an alternative to having to lay off up to 22,000 of their members.   

 

Won't Fall Into Line

But while the city's two largest unions, the United Federation of Teachers and District Council 37, during October agreed to defer wages or benefit payments into the fiscal year that begins next July 1 in return for a no-layoff guarantee, as has the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, Mr. Boscio resisted based on what he considers unbalanced terms sought by the city and the short timeframe in which it sought a decision.

In an Oct. 27 letter to his members, he wrote that the city's disclosure four days earlier that it would not implement the retroactive money owed to them from the wage contract as scheduled Oct. 30 and sought to delay the payout to next July was an "egregious violation of our contract."

He added that this demand was coupled with "a delay of our final 3% raise into the next fiscal year," with its scheduled payment date of next June 1 to be pushed back seven months to the beginning of 2022. The city also, Mr. Boscio revealed in an Oct. 29 interview, wanted to further delay $9.45 million in health-and-welfare-fund payments to both active employees and retirees—which was retroactive to Feb. 1 but had its implementation rescheduled to Oct. 30, into fiscal 2022 as well.

He told his rank and file that the de Blasio administration was "using the threat of potential layoffs as a bargaining chip to force us to make an ad hoc decision that would be detrimental to you and your families."

Limited Layoff Protection

Refusing to delay payment of the monies owed to them could jeopardize the job security of less-senior Correction Officers who would be the first ones to be laid off. But Mr. Boscio told his members that he wasn't willing to divide them "by agreeing to a provision that prevents layoffs only [through] June 2021." And even that guarantee wasn't ironclad, he noted, since it was contingent on there being "no further decline in the city's financial condition" over the next eight months.

And, he added, given the administration's having already stepped away from the payment dates under the union's contract for both the retro money and the health-and-welfare benefits, "how could we possibly agree to a no-layoff clause with a realistic expectation that the city would honor it if present circumstances persist or worsen?"

He is not the only municipal-union leader to leave open the possibility of layoffs rather than agree to what he considered untenable givebacks. Nor is that a new stance among city labor heads. There are two reasons—one political, the other rooted in trade-union concerns—for being willing to sacrifice members rather than pay an exorbitant price to save their jobs: laid-off members can't vote their leaders out of office the way that those who are spared the ax but remain angry at what they had to give up can, and the concern that once a layoff guarantee expires, an employer will come back to demand more concessions or face future job cuts.

 

Reasons for Saying No

Mr. Boscio said he was unhappy that Labor Commissioner Renee Campion first raised the possibility of deferring the retro payments and the city's added contributions to the benefit funds on Oct. 23 and demanded an answer three days later—sooner than he could submit the issue to members for a vote, even if he wanted to take those steps.

But he also noted that the rushed timetable was one more indignity his 9,000-plus members were being asked to swallow at a time when Mayor de Blasio is planning to close two city jails—rather than keeping them open and using the space and a drop in the inmate population to achieve better social distancing in the system—and making layoffs based on having to cover a reduced area.

The rank and file's mood even before those changes moved closer to reality was reflected in its voting down a tentative contract negotiated by Mr. Husamudeen this spring even after he made changes in responses to objections from union delegates.

"This contract was done post-COVID," Mr. Boscio said of the final accord that reflected members' greater focus on financial security, leading the union to move up payment dates by eliminating one key element of the original pact that would have created an education fund.

Bound for Arbitration

He has requested an expedited arbitration of the dispute with the city, and said the de Blasio administration agreed to waive the 15-day delay that normally would be required before starting that process. 

The UFT under its 2014 contract had the right to go before the arbitrator who had helped mediate negotiations on that deal to settle any disputes over its retroactive-wage payment schedule, allowing a blow-up on Oct. 8 to be settled by the following evening, In contrast, COBA would have to agree with the city on an arbitrator chosen from a list supplied by the Office of Collective Bargaining, who would then have to quickly become familiar with the issues in dispute.

The union did not have the option of suing in court, Mr. Boscio noted, since it first must exhaust its administrative remedies through the arbitration process.