Contact Me By Email

Atlanta, GA Weather from Weather Underground

Friday, December 23, 2005

From Back-Channel Contacts, Blueprint for a Deal - New York Times

From Back-Channel Contacts, Blueprint for a Deal - New York TimesDecember 23, 2005
From Back-Channel Contacts, Blueprint for a Deal

On Wednesday morning, Roger Toussaint's closest advisers encouraged him to face his difficult circumstances. The workers in Mr. Toussaint's union, who had brought the city's transit system to a halt, were incurring fines and public scorn with each day of the union's strike.

What's your endgame? the advisers asked him gently.

Already, Mr. Toussaint had sent intermediaries to seek Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's aid in ending the deadlock with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, according to several people involved in the discussions.

But by noon, other labor leaders had become more blunt in counseling Mr. Toussaint, suggesting that his union was in real peril.

In an early afternoon telephone conference call with 40 union leaders, according to people who participated, Mr. Toussaint showed his frustration as he sought a public showing of support.

"I don't need anyone standing on the sidelines holding my coat," one person recalled his saying. "I need someone to take off their coats."

Eventually, Mr. Toussaint's back-channel communication to Mr. Bloomberg paid off, and the groundwork for a return to work was laid.

Mr. Toussaint signaled that if the transportation authority relaxed its demands involving pensions - the issue at the heart of the contract dispute - he would be willing to bargain over workers' making payments toward their health benefits. Mr. Bloomberg, after initial skepticism, indicated it might be a formula for success.

It was. Less than 24 hours after Mr. Toussaint's moments of hard reckoning, mediators announced that the union leadership felt sufficiently encouraged about progress to announce that the union was ready to call off the strike.

The story of what happened over those 24 hours - the role of the state mediators, the background role of the Bloomberg administration, the contrasting realities of heated public exchanges and behind-the-scenes headway - was pieced together through interviews with government officials, labor leaders and people close to the union and the authority. The principals themselves, Mr. Toussaint and top officials of the authority, have agreed to conduct the remaining negotiations toward a final contract in secret.

The beginning of the end of the transit strike of 2005 started innocuously, with the arrival around 3 p.m. on Tuesday of a middle-aged man with a dimpled chin and a dark gray mustache. He slipped into a Midtown hotel unnoticed, 12 hours after the city's subway and bus workers walked off the job for the first time in 25 years.

The man, a mediator from the state's Public Employment Relations Board who had traveled from Albany to enter what for New Yorkers was the World Series of conflict resolution, would help establish enough of a negotiating peace that millions of people who had been all but stranded in their own city could resume their normal lives.

The mediator, Richard A. Curreri, and two other veteran mediators practiced shuttle diplomacy inside the Grand Hyatt hotel near Grand Central Terminal. But their main accomplishment may not have been performing feats of persuasion so much as providing public cover for each side to resume negotiations, even as a war of rhetoric continued to rage at news conferences and on picket lines.

Mr. Curreri, a lawyer who has worked for the board since 1990 and is its director of conciliation, invited two other mediators to join him on Tuesday: Martin F. Scheinman, a lawyer and veteran arbitrator and mediator who has helped settle thousands of labor contracts, and Alan R. Viani, who was the chief negotiator for District Council 37, the city's largest union of municipal workers, from 1973 to 1985. They would work through the night on Wednesday before emerging early yesterday to say an end to the strike was at hand.

Even though Gov. George E. Pataki opposed negotiations unless the strike ended, and Mr. Toussaint opposed negotiations unless pensions were dropped from the table, all day Wednesday top negotiators for the two sides met repeatedly with the mediators - in effect, negotiating through a third party.

On Wednesday, Mr. Toussaint had clearly begun to appreciate the depth of the problems faced by Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union. Those who were advising him said he seriously contemplated the prospect of being jailed and the economic harm to his workers.

Around 10 a.m., Mr. Toussaint called two other labor leaders: Bruce S. Raynor, the general president of Unite Here, the union representing apparel, hotel and restaurant workers, and Mike Fishman, president of the city's giant union of building service workers, Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union. Mr. Toussaint asked the two men, who had both supported Mr. Bloomberg's re-election, to call the mayor to urge him to pressure Peter S. Kalikow, chairman of the authority, to drop his demands on pensions, according to Mr. Raynor.

In its final offer, the authority demanded that future workers pay 6 percent of their wages toward their pensions, compared with 2 percent from current workers. Mr. Toussaint condemned that proposal as onerously high and as treating tomorrow's workers worse than today's.

Mr. Raynor said he had tried to gauge the mayor's response to the idea of having the authority back off on its pension demands and instead consider higher health care contributions from workers as a way of achieving long-term savings. The mayor at first rejected the notion, but "eventually he came around to believing that was a good idea," Mr. Raynor said.

Mr. Raynor said he and Mr. Fishman had tried to serve as informal mediators. "We both believe that you have to find a solution, the quicker the better, and we both had credibility with the mayor and with Roger," Mr. Raynor said.

The resolution of the strike picked up speed Wednesday afternoon, even after harsh public performances by the mayor and by Mr. Toussaint, as well as by Mr. Pataki, who demanded that the workers return to their jobs before negotiations could resume. When David Catalfamo, a spokesman for Mr. Pataki, was asked on Wednesday whether the authority was free to bargain, he replied in an e-mail message, "The M.T.A. can speak for themselves."

Mr. Toussaint went before television cameras on Wednesday afternoon and tried to claim the moral high ground in the dispute. He tried to place the strike in the context of social justice and likened the illegal walkout to Rosa Parks's civil disobedience. He also tried to raise the ante, by offering to resume talks immediately if the authority agreed to drop its pension demands.

Two hours later, more than a dozen union leaders - representing teachers, CUNY professors, police detectives and municipal workers, among other groups - stood before the same cameras and vigorously asserted that Mr. Toussaint's demand to have pensions dropped from the talks was fair and reasonable. What they did not do was declare support for the strike.

Privately, in the conference call on Wednesday afternoon, they had warned Mr. Toussaint that the fines, public anger and contempt citations from the strike could be disastrous.

"All day long there were a couple of us, that kept on trying to figure out what can settle this, what can solve this," said Randi Weingarten, the president of the United Federation of Teachers. "We were very concerned that management was going to bear down and go after the union."

She and Assemblyman Brian M. McLaughlin, a Queens Democrat who is the president of the New York City Central Labor Council, spoke to both Mr. Toussaint and Mr. Kalikow. Mr. McLaughlin said yesterday he was aware that the union's position was delicate but credited Mr. Toussaint for being willing to return to the table. "Nobody really knew where Roger was willing, or not willing, to go," he said. "He said if this issue was removed from the table, we could within hours reach an agreement."

Mr. McLaughlin said the strike had been a major obstacle in getting the authority to make concessions. "You have to work past things," he said. "Once there's a strike, attitudes change. Politicians go more for blood than conflict resolution, and place the blame squarely on one side."

Bill Lynch, a former deputy mayor who has advised Mr. Toussaint, said the unions' stance and the communications with Mr. Bloomberg had been critical in persuading the transportation authority to bend. "I think that they were hearing all that static out there and I think, with the municipal unions coming as strongly as they did, the momentum toward saving the pensions was starting to build," Mr. Lynch said. The transportation authority, he said, was "losing ground on that issue."

Enter the mediators. Their proposal - having the union agree to return to work with the transportation authority essentially acknowledging that pensions were all but off the table - ultimately allowed each side to swallow something.

Barry L. Feinstein, a former Teamsters leader who has served on the authority's board since 1989 and is close to Mr. Pataki and Mr. Kalikow, said Mr. Kalikow deserved credit for showing resolve without foreclosing the possibility of reopening talks. He said many people had expected Mr. Kalikow to give in under the threat of a strike.

"Many people thought that he wouldn't be able to take the pressure, that he would fold, that he would do whatever had to be done to prevent a strike, that the M.T.A. would avoid a strike at any cost," Mr. Feinstein said. "That didn't happen."

Jerome Lefkowitz, a labor lawyer who helped draft a state law that provides for mediation and arbitration in contract disputes involving police, firefighters and transit workers, said he felt the law had helped people find a path of reason.

"Mediators must have the facility to listen to what the negotiators are saying and to hear priorities and demands that may not be articulated explicitly," he said. "When they start making progress, more tradeoffs follow pretty quickly, once you can break the ice."

1 comment:

  1. Hey, you have a great blog here! I'm definitely going to bookmark you!

    I have a mortgage calc site/blog. It pretty much covers mortgage calc related stuff.

    Come and check it out if you get time :-)