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Health care concessions in the NYC public sector?

Awaiting the sting from the citywide contract

Robert Cuffy and Peter Allen-Lamphere argue that the heralded citywide contract for New York City public sector workers needs to be reframed for failing to keep up with inflation, providing no guarantees around remote work, and almost ensuring a further erosion of health care benefits.

The stage has been set for the next phase of the struggle of roughly 400,000 New York City workers in their contract fights against Mayor Adams’ administration. The recent tentative contract agreement between the 150,000 member District Council 37 (DC37) and Mayor Adams was billed by both the city and the union leadership as a grand compromise which gives both sides what they want. In reality, the deal will leave DC37 members shortchanged while setting a sub-inflation pattern for other city unions to follow.

Although the proposed 3% annual wage increases are much more generous than the Mayor’s initial bargaining position of 1.25%, they still do not keep up with the 6% inflation the NYC area experienced since the last DC37 contract expired in May 2021. The terms of remote work are to be decided by a joint union-management committee and do not guarantee the right to work from home. But most crucially, the city and union leaders are busily finding backdoor savings on health insurance.

The terms of this deal are undoubtedly based on an implicit promise that the union leaders will use cuts to healthcare, for both retirees and in-service members, to find savings for the city. In particular, the insistence of the union leadership and the city to move forward with the privatization of retiree health care under insurance multinational  Aetna, despite broad based opposition, shows where their priorities lie. Even worse is the pursuit of a bargain basement replacement of the in-service health care plan by the end of the year. This will significantly worsen municipal health care for the over 1 million people dependent on it.

Sadly, the weak tentative agreement does not come as a surprise. DC37 has bargained with the Adams’ administration not as a representative of management but as partners in a scheme of balancing the books. As Executive Director Henry Garrido said in the press conference announcing the deal, he “is still committed to saving hundreds of millions of dollars in health care.”

The token mobilization of membership – a joint day of action with United Federation of Teachers members literally the day before the deal was announced – only underscored how this contract was achieved not by flexing labor’s muscles but by conciliation.

Not only did DC37 endorse Eric Adams’ bid for mayor during the primary and general elections during his bid for mayor, DC37 president Henry Garrido also  joined Adams on a trip to the Caribbean to celebrate his victory. This sadly helps to burnish the false image that Adams puts forward as a former blue collar worker who governs in the interest of city workers. For example, Adams was foisted upon union members as a surprise guest during a Local 371 delegate assembly held a few months before the general election, where he referred to his common claim of blue collar roots.

Local 371 president Anthony Wells and DC37 president Garrido have bought Adams’ story hook, line and sinker. With this tentative agreement they hope to reel in the members into this bait and switch contract. Union members played no active role in the negotiation process and DC37 held a grand total of two contract rallies during the negotiation process. In our workplaces, members often struggle to differentiate between the union leadership and city bosses. At one worksite, many school aides were surprised to learn that they had a contract, that it had expired, or that they might have a vote on whether to approve a new one.

Tellingly, with the exception of pledging to preserve free healthcare, the DC37 leadership made no other real demands on the city (and they plan to retain premium free health care simply by making it much much worse). Similarly, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) leaders have refused to even let their membership know what their bargaining demands are, swearing their bargaining team to secrecy and arguing that they won’t “bargain in public.”

Given that DC37, the UFT and other city union leaderships  also participated in the scheme to achieve cost savings by switching city retirees to a Medicare Advantage program, the writing is on the wall that healthcare concessions will be wrested from the workforce. The retirees were able to fight back through lawsuits, protests and lobbying of the city council and won an important, if temporary, victory. With an intense grassroots campaign of calling city council members and packing hearings, they forced the city and union leadership to back down on their attempt to change legal guarantees protecting health care.

Current city workers should follow the lead of the retirees and remain vigilant against the city’s efforts to change the basic healthcare plan from Emblem Health/GHI to a cheaper option by the end of the year. A campaign to save the current premium free health care could be an important focal point of struggle over the next months. Even though it has faced declining quality and increasing cost because of the greed of hospital chains and pharmaceutical corporations, as well as major concessions in the last two contract rounds, it is one of the few premium free plans remaining in the country.

A graphic shows two hands holding onto one pair of black scissors that cuts in half a red heart with a white pulse. One hand is green and is filled with the logo of District Council 37 and reads ‘DC37 AFSCME AFL-CIO.’ The other hand is blue and is filled with the logo that reads ‘NYC Office of the Mayor.’
Leadership of DC37 and the Mayor’s Office cut away at workers’ health insurance in the union’s recent tentative agreement. Artwork Credit: Nevena Pilipović-Wengler

Ultimately, city workers’ health care can only be saved by a single payer plan like the New York Health Act (NYHA). Of course, contrary to the stated union policy, public sector unions have been the key opposition in Albany to the NYHA, because they want to preserve their internal Welfare Fund empires that provide patronage jobs to the unions, and their allegiance to the corporate, pro-insurance wing of the Democratic Party.

Given the lack of momentum built during the contract negotiations, there sadly does not seem to be the energy amongst the ranks for a “Vote No” campaign against the contract despite a significant minority expressing anger at the paltry wages.

DC37 covers city employees such as Child and Family Specialists who make as much as $80,000 annually as well as cafeteria workers who make less than $40,000 a year. As such, these below- inflation wages proposed in the contract, in effect a pay cut, will hit those at the bottom end of the salary pool the hardest. However, the $3000 ratification bonus, along with the retroactive wage increases, will be a powerful incentive to vote for ratification, especially for the lowest paid workers.

Nonetheless, as the healthcare concessions implied by this deal are gradually revealed, the seeds of anger that are being planted now can grow to transform the current situation. There are significant rank and file forces on the ground that are playing a key role in fostering this process.

DC37 Progressives, as a union caucus dedicated to radical change, democracy and transparency, will continue to highlight the ways in which this contract is a sweetheart deal between the city and mayor. They have held open forums at our meetings to talk about the contract where members from various locals shared the tidbits of info they learned from their own leadership. The struggle is challenging, because DC37 itself is a federation of many locals with workers spread across different offices, boroughs, and city agencies and with a structure that actively works against democratic accountability. .

In the UFT, opposition forces, including the Movement of Rank and File Educators, won a significant minority of votes in recent union elections, and will continue to agitate for greater transparency and a more militant contract strategy. As Olivia Swisher, MORE activist and member of the 500 person UFT negotiating committee put it, “This [kind of contract] is what happens when negotiations aren’t transparent and rank and file members are left out of the negotiations process. Only rank and file members know rank and file struggle.”

Similarly, amongst city nurses, there is a momentum around the contract struggle.There is a massive retention crisis among nurses, one similar to that of DC37 members and public sector educators. Sean Petty, a registered nurse at a city public hospital and member of the bargaining team for New York State United Nurses Association (NYSNA), told Tempest that “the recent economic package negotiated by DC 37 if applied to nurses is not going to do anything to even put a small dent into our retention crisis…Even though we were proven to be the most valuable resource in New York during its worst time, we are currently valued at more than $20,000 a year less than our private sector counterparts.” Nurses are already organizing members for a contract campaign that will take more serious action and mobilization than DC37 attempted. Nurses recently won serious working conditions gains, along with a 19% raise over three years, through strike action at private hospitals. Only by following the NYSNA example of carefully preparing membership to present a credible, effective strike threat will unions be able to regain their bargaining power to win significant gains and prevent health care cuts.

Knitting together these different strands of activism across different unions, public sector union activists can help to build the confidence of our union siblings to fight for a better contract. One formation, Public Sector Rank and File, made up of MORE, RAFA/PSC, DC37 Progressives, and NYSNA activists, is trying to do just that.

City workers must likewise come together to set our own pattern of militant workplace and community struggles to reject the city’s austerity measures, and to hold Adams accountable if he seeks our endorsement for re-election.

Since the majority of the city workforce is made up of Black people and people of color, they will be paying the price of this austerity budget. Hopefully this will provoke a fightback.

Featured Image credit: Nevena Pilipović-Wengler.

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Robert Cuffy and Peter Allen-Lamphere View All

Robert Cuffy is a Delegate for Local 371, District Council 37, AFSCME, AFL-CIO. 

Peter Allen-Lamphere is a member of the United Federation of Teachers and the Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE).