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NYC labor talks make tentative start in $8 bln pay dispute

By Edward Krudy

NEW YORK, Feb 19 (Reuters) - New York City has begun preliminary talks with labor unions as it aims to break the deadlock in a years-old pay dispute that city workers say has left them owed up to $8 billion.

A spokesman for the mayor's office said on Wednesday city negotiators had contacted some unions for preliminary discussions but said full negotiations had yet to start.

"Preliminary talks have just begun so it's not full bore across the board; there's some preliminary conversations that have begun with certain unions but not all," said the spokesman. He did not say which unions were involved.

New York City's top financial watchdog urged the city on Wednesday to resolve contract disputes with its workers by the end of the fiscal year on June 30, adding a settlement involving payouts in future years could be an option open to Mayor Bill de Blasio as he aims to soften the blow to the budget.

"It is critical that we resolve these contracts or we are on our way to resolve these contracts by June 30," said city Comptroller Scott Stringer. "Our municipal workers have waited too long for a settlement and our taxpayers need to know the true state of the city's fiscal situation."

All of New York's 300,000 unionized public workers are without contracts after refusing to accept pay freezes imposed by New York's previous mayor Michael Bloomberg. The demands from unions for back pay as far back as 2009 could reach $7 billion to $8 billion, or around 10 percent of the city budget, according to multiple estimates.

Arthur Cheliotes, president of the Communications Workers of America, which represents around 8,500 city workers, said he had a meeting with Robert Linn, de Blasio's new director of labor relations, on Feb. 11.

"He (Linn) indicated that he is getting the older contracts that have been expired the longest dealt with, especially the teachers and principals," said Cheliotes, who said the last raises given to the city's CWA workers were in October 2009.

A spokesman for the United Federation of Teachers said preliminary talks had begun with Linn but said proper negotiations were still to get underway.

Someone with knowledge of those meetings said the atmosphere was far different from the frosty relationship between the teachers and the Bloomberg administration.

Last Thursday the city negotiated a contract with 200 police officers in the Department of Environmental Protection for the period from 2005 to 2008 in a package worth an average of $53,000 to $55,000 per officer, according to a spokesman for the Law Enforcement Employers Benevolent Association (LEEBA).

Although a small group of workers compared to the mammoth teacher and healthcare unions, the settlement indicates a willingness on the part of the de Blasio to meet at least part of workers' demands. Robert Linn attended the meeting.

De Blasio, the city's first Democratic mayor in two decades, is more sympathetic to labor unions than his predecessor. But the size of the unsettled contracts could be a threat to his signature initiatives, including funding universal preschool for city residents.

De Blasio has previously said the city cannot afford to meet all union demands but has not closed the door to some retroactive pay increases.

The package agreed with LEEBA included retroactive pay increases of 4 percent to 5 percent for the three years of the contract. The payment will be made in three installments over the next three years, according to a LEEBA spokesman.

De Blasio has said that the settlement with LEEBA would not be precedent-setting for negotiations with more than 150 other bargaining units. But it may indicate the administration's willingness to push payments into future years, a strategy the Bloomberg administration said broke city accounting rules.

De Blasio presented his first executive budget last week after taking office at the start of the year. Stringer said the unresolved dispute was the biggest risk to the plan but commended the mayor for setting aside $1 billion in the retiree health benefits trust and $300 million in a reserve fund, money that could potentially be used in a settlement, he said.