New York public sector workers fight attacks on pay and healthcare

Photo: Packed NYC Labor Notes session about the Public Sector Rank and File (PSRF) initiative

The current period is a tumultuous time for New York City (NYC) municipal workers as old contracts expire and new contracts are negotiated. The unions involved—including UFT (United Federation of Teachers), DC37 (NYC’s largest public-sector union, spanning various industries), PSC-CUNY (City University of New York workers), UAW and NYSNA (nurses)—represent at least 450,000 workers across the metropolitan area. These negotiations take place behind closed doors, without transparency for rank-and-file workers who are concerned about whether the new contracts will represent their interests. Some workers are organizing to put pressure on their union leadership, but these efforts are still small and face obstacles.

The staggered, disunited negotiations are justified through a process called pattern bargaining, where the negotiation results for one contract set a precedent for the subsequent unions negotiating new contracts. Typically, pattern bargaining results in isolated unions stepping back demands, losing the chance of a big victory by preemptively settling for only modest gains at the cost of devastating concessions.

Quality Healthcare for All!

Healthcare is a particularly contentious issue in the negotiations and a prime example of where pattern bargaining falls flat. The city refuses to negotiate salary raises for public sector workers until the unions come up with additional health care “savings” as in prior contracts. In response, UFT leaders are pushing members to accept a concession in the form of Medicare Advantage (MA), a privatized healthcare plan which would require retirees to pay $200/month for their healthcare. This would reverse the previous policy of premium-free healthcare for all municipal workers and retirees.

MA is a private insurance replacement aiming to turn the original federally-run Medicare into a cash cow for insurance companies. MA was established in 1997 by the Republican-controlled Congress and the Democrat White House under Clinton. In nearly 30 years, there have been many whistleblowers who have accused MA providers of fraud. After a 2019 lawsuit, it was revealed in early 2022 that 90 different audits from government investigators over the decades prove the existence of widespread fraud. MA more than doubles the cost of healthcare on taxpayers as a whole because it incentivizes companies to make patients appear sicker than they actually are so insurers can receive more government funding. Yet Biden, despite campaigning on “the choice to purchase a public option like Medicare” (still a far cry from desperately needed universal healthcare), has continued to advance the program, increasing payouts to private insurers by 9.5% since 2021. 

UFT president Michael Mulgrew misleads members about MA by claiming it would be accepted by every doctor when many do not. The Municipal Labor Committee, an umbrella group of city unions, has not even bothered to enlist doctors to participate. Union leaders such as Mulgrew lie to their members by claiming this is the only way to deliver the city healthcare savings. Instead, the city should go after hospitals for exorbitant charges, address the skyrocketing costs of prescription drugs, audit current insurance providers, establish local regulations, and use its massive financial reserves to provide the healthcare that workers need. The burden should not fall on current workers, retirees, and their dependents.

Other key issues in these negotiations include wages and staffing. Workers need better wages that account for cost-of-living increases. Previous contracts only had raises of 2-3% whereas inflation hit 7% each year for the past two years. Of course, in past contracts, union bureaucrats negotiated larger raises for themselves than the rank-and-file.

Rank-and-File Resists

Some rank-and-file NYC municipal union members are organizing independently of their union leadership to influence the negotiations, oppose pattern bargaining, and fight for real contract improvements. This includes the Union Power campaign, which has held “Rank and File Organizing Committee” (RFOC) meetings that bring together groups like the Movement of Rank and File Educators caucus of the UFT to discuss tactics for cross-union activism in response to austerity measures and potential layoffs. The RFOC is putting forward the demand for a graduated 5-10% wealth tax (which taxes assets rather than income) on those with over $5 million in net worth in New York State to provide funding for good raises and quality healthcare. RFOC experienced resurgent growth in the summer of 2022 and is meeting regularly to develop strategies for organizing around common demands. ISG members in the UFT are organizing as a part of this effort.

In August 2021, the NYC Organization of Public Service Retirees was formed as a coalition of many municipal unions to fight attacks on retirees’ healthcare. NYCOPSR held rallies, published articles and fliers, and played a key role in raising awareness about the issue. A caucus called Retiree Advocate was formed within UFT in 2021, fighting for a more effective retiree chapter of the union. Retiree activists have stopped UFT-endorsed Senior Care copays and prevented a change to the law that would have permitted the city and unions to increase copays and premiums and are currently fighting against the implementation of MA for retirees.

Thousands of nurses at seven hospitals in NYC went on strike on January 9th and won a 19% pay increase over the span of a three-year contract. These efforts show the power of rank-and-file organizing and the ability to achieve positive results through collective action.

Fight Benefit Attacks with Universal Healthcare:

  • Unions and workers will continue to struggle with healthcare prices until the labor movement seriously campaigns for publicly-funded universal healthcare, paid for by taxing corporations and the wealthy, and run democratically by workers and patients.
  • NY public sector workers need to win back the right to strike by challenging the Taylor Laws which make it illegal for municipal workers to strike.
  • We need to fight for annual raises greater than the rate of inflation during the contract term.
  • Finally, we should fight for open bargaining, so we can be directly involved in the contract negotiations.

Independent Socialist Group supports good contracts for public sector workers and rank-and-file members organizing to reclaim our unions as democratic fighting organizations for the working class.

Photo: Public Sector Bargaining Landscape: Crash Course for NYC Unionists Session. Nov. 2022 NYC Labor Notes. “Negotiations for the contracts covering hundreds of thousands of NYC public sector workers historically take place behind closed doors. Come to this panel to understand what’s going on, how deals happen, and how members can impact the process. Speakers: Samir Sonti (PSC-CUNY), Gloria Brandman (Retiree Advocate, UFT), Sarah Ann Adams (AFSCME 1930, DC 37), Boyda Johnstone (PSC-CUNY)

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