Thursday, July 5, 2012

Setback for mayor on prevailing-wage order

A judge on Thursday blocked a move by Mayor Michael Bloomberg to prevent the city comptroller from setting wages for about 10,000 city employees.

By Daniel Massey

A Manhattan judge Thursday blocked a move by Mayor Michael Bloomberg to prevent the city comptroller from setting wages for about 10,000 city employees.

Mr. Bloomberg had issued an executive order in April to end a 118-year-old rule that empowers the comptroller to set prevailing wages for about 3% of the city's workforce. The mayor wants plumbers, carpenters and other trade workers to work out their salaries via collective bargaining without any input from the comptroller.

Explaining his rationale on his radio program, the mayor had said the age-old practice likely stemmed from "some back-door political thing, done in the dead of night." He said the vast majority of city workers have their wages set through collective bargaining and that his order closes "a loophole." He argued that wages set by the comptroller recently have exceeded those in the private sector.

For most of its workforce, the city can make contract offers and tell unions to go to arbitration if they don't like them. But for the 3% covered by the prevailing wage law, the unions have the leverage of going to the comptroller for a ruling on the prevailing rate.

Unions vigorously opposed the mayor's order. The New York District Council of Carpenters, District Council 37, Plumbers Local 1, Steamfitters Local 638 and Local 3 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers were among those who went to court seeking a restraining order, which was granted in May.
They made several arguments, but the one that appeared to carry the most weight with state Supreme Court Judge Manuel Mendez was that the mayor lacked the authority to make the change without the approval of the state Civil Service Commission.

On Thursday, the judge ruled that the mayor's move "does not have a rational basis and is arbitrary and capricious." He wrote that the mayor had sought to alter work terms "without any notice, hearing or determination by the New York State Civil Service Commissioner."

Last year, the mayor issued a report that called for broad changes to the city's civil service system, most notably for an end to the state Civil Service Commission's authority over city hiring. Labor leaders at the time howled and called the proposal a nonstarter. Gutting the commission's power would be difficult to achieve politically, so the mayor sought an end-run around prevailing wage with his executive order. But that order has now been shot down.

"The city's actions were a transparent power grab that would have had a detrimental impact on middle class workers," said Mario Cilento, president of the state AFL-CIO.

"The administrative change the city made seeks to undo an expensive anomaly in New York City government, and was implemented by other major jurisdictions in the state years ago. These workers should bargain for their wages and benefits like other city employees, as well as other public employees around the state," said Michael Cardozo, the city's corporation counsel. "Our actions were firmly rooted in statute and judicial precedent. We disagree with the decision and will be appealing it."

City Comptroller John Liu's office backed the court's decision fully.

"This office has set prevailing wages for more than a century, and the mayor's current labor strategy has resulted in 200,000 men and women working without a contract in this city," a spokesman for Comptroller John Liu said.

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