Sometimes we must engage in fights that are so basic to a union’s ability to operate that they transcend the issues surrounding the particular threat.
We have been fighting a battle over health care, but we are now facing a threat to collective bargaining that arose from that health care battle. Collective bargaining with an employer is fundamental, and we find ourselves defending it for both our own union and for our fellow unions in the New York City Municipal Labor Committee (MLC).
Without collective bargaining, workers would return to the days when crumbs from the table would sometimes be awarded to employees if they behaved themselves and didn’t cause any trouble for those who governed the workplace. For public school educators, it meant humbly accepting multiple class assignments, lunchroom duty, hall patrol and a meager wage without adequate health, pension, sick-leave or vacation benefits.
When we won the right to collective bargaining, we joined together, built a union and fought for our rights and benefits. We improved our working conditions, which were our students’ learning conditions, and became one of the strongest advocates for New York City public schools in the process.
For 40 years, the Municipal Labor Committee, the umbrella organization of 100-plus New York City municipal unions including the UFT, has had the authority to bargain on health care on behalf of the members of all these unions. Throughout this period, even as health care costs began to escalate year after year, the MLC fought hard to preserve premium-free benefits for members, both in-service and retired.
Knowing that spiraling health care costs would ultimately end up hurting members, the MLC has worked with the city over the years to find ways to cut costs while maintaining the quality of benefits and the choice of health care plans. Pay-up health plan options are particularly important for retirees, who are scattered across the country, since some health plans have stronger regional provider networks than others.
In recent litigation over the New York City Medicare Advantage Plus plan, a judge ultimately gave the green light for the city to implement such a plan, but he simultaneously took aim at the collective bargaining rights of city unions.
Justice Lyle Frank’s decision effectively eliminated the authority of the MLC to bargain collectively with the city on health care. He said the city had no obligation to offer a choice of health care plans. Justice Frank wrote: “Of course, none of this is to say that the respondent [the city] must give retirees an option of plans ...”
Citing a clause in the city’s administrative code that he interpreted in a flawed way, the judge gave away 40 years of MLC bargaining rights with the city to negotiate a choice of health care plans. The judge said the city can impose a single plan on all retirees. The city Office of Labor Relations has already signaled its intent to choose a single Medicare Advantage plan for all Medicare-eligible city retirees.
With our collective bargaining rights hanging in the balance, we have enlisted both retirees and in-service members to deliver a simple message to the City Council: Amend the New York City Administrative Code to preserve our collective bargaining rights.
We are a union. We do not give away our collective bargaining rights.
The MLC is asking the City Council to add a clause to Section 12-126 of the administrative code to reaffirm the municipal unions’ right to negotiate health benefits and to preserve health plan options for retirees.