Even when they ignore the potential political ramifications of opposing public employee severance benefits, Long Island officials say they are hamstrung from winning changes by two provisions of state labor law.
Both were amendments to the state’s Taylor Law, which in 1967 gave full recognition to government unions, beginning the modern era of state and municipal labor negotiations.
By recognizing the unions as bargaining agents while providing penalties for striking, legislators hoped to initiate a shift from the picket line to the bargaining table.
But walkouts by teachers, sanitation workers, transit workers and even drawbridge operators continued.
Amid worries about public safety workers walking out — including after a brief 1973 New York City firefighter strike — the first amendment was passed in 1974.
It allowed the government and public safety unions that reached an impasse to have a matter resolved before an impartial arbitration panel.
Nonetheless, strikes continued among other unions, leading to the other Taylor Law change in 1982. Known as the “Triborough Amendment,” it guarantees that workers continue receiving contractual benefits after a contract runs out and before a new agreement is reached.
Without a risk that governments would reduce benefits no longer protected by a contract, the gap periods have often continued for years as unions have held out for deals.
Strikes, on the other hand, are virtually nonexistent.
Maria Doulis, vice president of strategy, operations and communications for the nonpartisan Citizens Budget Commission, a nonprofit civic organization, said the Triborough Amendment has its advantages. By guaranteeing the continuation of an expired contract’s benefits, the amendment theoretically provides stability during negotiations and lessens the chances of an impasse that leads to arbitration, she said. Because arbitration panels often determine that governments can afford to pay for benefit increases even in the worst of times, Triborough can hold long-term advantages for government negotiators looking to contain costs.
“The arbitration is the real threat,” she said.
Former Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy, who vocally opposed severance benefits while in office, said arbitration panels have ruled in favor of unions no matter how large police salaries and property tax bills have gotten.
“I was one of the first county executives that went to the arbitration panel and argued aggressively,” Levy said. “Even then, you only had limited power.”
Paul Sabatino, chief deputy county executive under Levy, said arbitrations led unions to piggyback on one another’s awards. This, Sabatino said, is how the benefits spread to the towns and villages with police departments.
“The problem with the police, everything is a binding arbitration agreement,” Sabatino said. “If one municipality got X, the next municipality would want X plus one.”
Levy said the two Taylor Law changes have essentially made it impossible for local officials to do more than slow contract growth.
“You don't get anything for free when you are in negotiations,” Levy said, “which is why the only answer is through state legislation.”
The state’s law governing binding arbitration in public safety negotiations was last modified in 2013 after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo proposed capping arbitration awards at 2%. Cuomo’s proposal was rejected by state legislators, who passed a proposal aimed at encouraging arbitrators to place a higher emphasis on a government’s ability to pay. Critics said the modification made no difference. The law, which has regularly been renewed since it was passed, next expires in 2024.
Kevin Black, president of the Nassau Superior Officers’ Association, said binding arbitration was passed to force public officials to bargain in good faith even though the Taylor Law made it illegal for unions to strike, damaging their leverage. Not all arbitrations have been favorable to unions, he said.