2011-02-04 / Columnists

The Rockaway Beat

The Continuing Attack On City Workers
Commentary By Howard Schwach

The 2006 financial crisis was an avoidable disaster caused by widespread failures in government regulation, corporate mismanagement and heedless risk-taking by Wall Street, according to the conclusions of a federal inquiry that was headlined in the New York Times last week.

Nowhere do I see in the conclusions that the financial crisis or the resulting fiscal crisis in New York State was caused by public service unions.

Yet both Mayor Michael Bloomberg and newly-elected Governor Andrew Cuomo have been working for months now trying to convince the electorate that all the ills of the world right now were caused by union work rules and public pensions.

Bloomberg made the point several times during his meeting at the Bayswater Jewish Center a week ago Monday.

From the beginning, Bloomberg made it clear that there were tough times ahead and that union work rules and benefits were the culprit.

“We are in a very difficult time,” Bloomberg said in a statement at the beginning of the meeting. “We will not raise taxes, so that means we will have to find a way to do more with less, to provide services with fewer city workers. We spend millions of dollars for pensions and we can’t afford that any longer. Each city resident pays $2,500 a year to fund those pensions. We can’t cut pensions for those who already have them. That is the law. But, we can come up with a plan to cut the costs for future workers. If they don’t want to work for the city under those conditions, they don’t have to work for the city.”

The mayor believes that the fat cats on Wall Street deserve their million dollar bonuses because their contract says it’s the right thing.

Yet, he wants to stop hard working city workers from getting paid what they are worth and from getting a pension and health care that makes it easier for them as senior citizens.

I believe that I made an unwritten contract with the Board of Education in 1965, when I came out of the Navy and began teaching in Junior High School 198.

I agreed to teach to the best of my ability and obey the rules for the munificent sum of $5,900 a year. In all the years I taught, I never made more than $60,000 a year, and that was with 60 credits above my BA.

I knew that I would never get rich as a teacher and I accepted that fact in return for a decent salary, health benefits for me and my family and a decent pension after I retired.

I kept my side of the bargain from 1965 to 1970, when I went to work for Weekly Reader and then again from 1979 to 2001, when I retired to take over the editorship of The Wave.

Every city worker basically makes the same deal. Today, it appears that it is a deal with the devil because city workers, especially teachers, have been demonized by the Mayor and his henchmen.

What does the mayor want to do?

Do away with Civil Service laws that require that those who want to work for the city have to take and pass tests and that guarantees workers are hired on the basis of merit and not because they are a political crony of the local political heavyweight.

Those laws also guarantee that firing be done on the basis of seniority, not on who the worker knows or which political club he or she belongs to.

Bloomberg wants to do away with that system in favor of one where he and his managers can hire and fire whomever they want, without regard to whether or not they are qualified for the job or whether they have been doing the job successfully for dozens of years.

He wants to set up a new pension tier, so that new hires would get a much lower pension than those working today.

He wants to increase the retirement age across the board for all city workers, especially teachers, some of whom can retire at 55, with most of the remainder retiring at 62. Bloomberg wants to make the retirement age 65 or 70 for teachers. He has not yet said what age he has set for the uniformed employees such as cops and firefighters, who can now retire after 20 years, but you can be sure that he will when he feels the time is right. His assault is not only on teachers, but on all civil servants.

Members of the uniformed services now get a $12,000 a year pension supplement that was made part of their contract during bargaining many years ago in return for allowing the city to put their pension money into the stock market. Now, he wants to unilaterally do away with the supplement for those with less than 20 years of service.

Cuomo called the mayor’s plan “Innovative and realistic.”

The plan has to be approved by the State Legislature, however, and voting for it would be political suicide for those who represent city districts.

Why?

Look around Rockaway. There are many local residents who are public employees – cops, teachers, firefighters, EMT’s, nurses, lawyers, accountants and others.

They are the city and they all vote, as do their families, and the state legislators are well aware of that fact.

At one recent meeting before the City Council, Bloomberg warned that if the city employees didn’t play along with him on pension reform and give-backs, he might have to lay off 10,000 city workers.

Bloomberg has already lost whatever legacy he had to the Christmas snowstorm. Should he fire 10,000 workers, that would become his legacy.

And, he does not want to fire 10,000 workers. He wants to fire 10,000 experienced workers.

Calling new teachers “wonderful and innovative,” he has called on the state to give him the right to do away with the last-in, first-out rule that would use seniority as the rule for lay-offs or firings.

“Some of our best teachers are new to the profession,” he said. “We can no longer afford to lose those teachers and retain old and tired teachers just because of a union rule.”

What he was really saying is, let’s keep the less expensive teachers and get rid of all those old timers on maximum.

The mayor knows his business. Too bad he knows nothing else.

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