Attacking city worker benefits is assaulting the middle class
Sunday, April 12th 2009, 4:00 AM
As Mayor Bloomberg cranks up his reelection juggernaut - a not-so-small army of election attorneys, political hired guns and civic, business and clergy supporters - one of his most formidable opponents may turn out to be a sweet, grandmotherly union leader with a will of steel.
Her name is Lillian Roberts, executive director of DC 37, the largest of the municipal unions. And she is mad.
"This has to stop," she told me recently, referring to Bloomberg's budgetary saber-rattling.
Hizzoner is threatening to lay off as many as 7,000 city workers unless municipal unions surrender hard-won pension and pay rights.
"I consider it union-busting," says Roberts, pointing to a report by DC 37 called "Massive Waste at a Time of Need" that accuses the city of hiring temps and contractors for work that could be done more cheaply by city employees.
In city parks, for instance, Roberts claims the Department of Parks and Recreation is paying $12.6 million too much for landscape architects and engineers to plan the reconstruction of eight parks - work, she says, that could be done by workers already on the city payroll.
In the Department of Transportation, the study says, outside contractors are being hired to install those signs indicating parking hours and other traffic regulations, at triple the rate it would cost to use city workers.
The Fire Department contracts out audit and accounting services. The Department of Education uses outside companies to deliver school lunches and other food when city workers could handle the load.
"It's wasting the citizens' money and it's denying employment to people who could do a job," she says. "There's $9 billion worth of this nonsense going on."
Roberts isn't the only union boss to take issue with the mayor.
"I think he's crazy," said Norman Seabrook, president of the Correction Officers' Benevolent Association, referring to the mayor's layoff threats.
That comes from a union leader who endorsed Bloomberg twice - and was one of only two unions to back the billionaire in 2001.
At Teamsters Local 237, President Gregory Floyd bristles at Bloomberg's suggestion that his 27,000 workers begin paying part of the basic premium for health insurance.
"We can't afford to pay 10% of health coverage. Once you start that, you'll never catch up," Floyd told me. "Nobody gets 15% annual raises, and that's the rate at which health expenses are increasing. We should be working to try and get the premiums lower."
Not only is there plenty of room for belt-tightening at City Hall that doesn't require layoffs, there's a lot of cheap union-bashing going on that most media outlets refuse to correct.
Bloomberg and his aides, for instance, keep insisting that pension costs for city workers are going through the roof.
That may be true for cops and firefighters - two agencies that Bloomberg has exempted from the worst of the budget cuts - but most city workers get far more meager retirement benefits.
The average NYPD retiree, for instance, gets $43,000 a year plus a $12,000 Christmas bonus each year. More than 10,000 ex-cops between the ages of 41 and 49 get those benefits.
The army of administrators who belong to DC 37 can only dream of such perks.
"When our people retire, the average one will receive something like $20,000 a year," says Roberts. "Some of them even have to get food stamps."
Asking clerks, caseworkers and laborers to bear the brunt of cutbacks - only to end up on welfare after a lifetime of public service - is a betrayal of the city's middle class.
It's also light-years from the stereotype of overpaid municipal workers retiring early with cushy pensions.
There's no question that the city and state are in dire financial straits. But we deserve a thorough, line-by-line explanation of the billions in services that are being contracted out.
That shouldn't be asking too much of a mayor who claims his unique management skills justify another four years in power.