Rapid Rudy Redux: He Targets Unions for His Final Year

Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, standing before a lectern at Gracie Mansion on Nov. 21, had just finished entertaining the press corps

Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, standing before a lectern at Gracie Mansion on Nov. 21, had just finished entertaining the press corps with warm tales about a bygone Subway Series when a reporter injected a sour note into the otherwise warm proceedings. The teachers’ union, the reporter said, had just assailed him for not hiring enough security guards for schools, a decision that the union blamed for a sexual attack the day before on a helpless child.

Before the reporter had finished her question, the Mayor had cut her off with a taut shake of the head. “Oh, stop negotiating the contract,” Mr. Giuliani snapped. “It’s a shame to use anything like that to try to negotiate a contract.…”

Mr. Giuliani, a man much given to imagining himself in grand operatic roles, has struggled to stand quietly in the wings in recent weeks while two political dramas unfolded-neither of which featured him in a starring role. But now that the New York Senate race has been resolved, and the Presidential contest has devolved into an impenetrable legal struggle, Mr. Giuliani has quickly brought his personal drama back to City Hall.

He has revived his assault on low-level offenders. He has shrugged off the onerous burden of his new image as a softer, gentler Mayor made reflective by his bout with prostate cancer. But most important, he has hit upon the theme that he hopes will define the closing act of his Mayoralty. He is seeking a final, sweeping ideological victory over the city’s historically powerful unions-beginning with that favorite villain of conservative politicians, the teachers’ union. In recent days, Mr. Giuliani has launched one broadside after another at the United Federation of Teachers, which is seeking a raise, depicting the teachers as unworthy layabouts and threatening to jail the union’s head, Randi Weingarten.

Mr. Giuliani is assailing the unions as if blissfully aware of certain realities. The Mayor is a lame duck. The city’s municipal unions are feeling emboldened of late, having run enormously successful get-out-the-vote efforts on Election Day for the Democrats. Flush economic times usually translate into bargaining leverage for union negotiators. The unions, who got badly trounced in the last round of negotiations four years ago, are in a position of unusual strength this time. If the unions are unhappy with the deal offered by Mr. Giuliani, they simply can wait until his successor ascends the steps of City Hall.

But Mr. Giuliani has a plan. Even as he very publicly battles the teachers’ union, the city is quietly pursuing a divide-and-conquer strategy by opening a series of behind-the-scenes negotiations with Paddy Lynch, the young and energetic Ed Burns look-alike who heads the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association.

According to P.B.A. sources, a negotiating team from the P.B.A. has had seven private meetings with administration officials, the most recent on Nov. 16. The sources say that they are nearing a contract, pending the city’s presentation of wage numbers.

Such an outcome would be a coup for the Mayor. The idea is this: If the Mayor can come to a quick agreement with the police, all the other unions will fall like so many dominoes. Under pattern bargaining, the city uses the terms of the first contract as a basis for negotiating all the others. Which means that Mr. Giuliani will have set the stage for dictating the terms of negotiation with other, more stubborn unions. The Mayor will have prevented the police union from going to state-run arbitration, a process that is thought to be far more generous with wages than the city-run arbitration board that governs non-uniformed public unions.

The negotiating sessions have take place alternately at P.B.A. headquarters and the city’s Office of Labor Relations, with Ed Koch’s union-smashing former labor negotiator, Bob Linn, heading the P.B.A. bargaining team.

(Mr. Lynch recently offered testament to Mr. Lynn’s negotiating skills: “He may be a prick, but now he’s our prick.”)

There are several reasons for Mr. Lynch to deal now. To begin with, he is under tremendous pressure from the members who elected him to improve upon the infamously skimpy contract signed by Mr. Lynch’s predecessors-a contract that was instantly termed “Zeroes for Heroes.” That pact has now expired, though its terms will remain in effect until a new one is signed. Mr. Lynch and his allies also have cast their lot with Republicans to an extent far greater than any other major municipal union. For example, the P.B.A. was the first and biggest union to endorse Rick Lazio for U.S. Senate. This makes the prospect of dealing with a new, Democratic Mayor considerably less attractive.

The P.B.A. sources contend that a deal may be within reach because, unlike the teachers, there are few major philosophical differences with their city counterparts across the table. “The only thing we have in common with the teachers and a lot of these other unions is low pay,” said one source. “We just had the biggest crime drop ever, and no problems like they have with kids’ reading scores, so no one is talking about our productivity. It’s all about wages and benefits.”

Battle Lines Drawn

Even as Mr. Giuliani quietly pursues a resolution with police, he is laying out stark ideological battle lines in his ongoing clashes with teachers. Teachers have long been a favorite target of conservative thinkers, who blame them and their unions for the decline in public education. Now Mr. Giuliani is following that playbook-his rhetoric has been bolder and more doctrinaire than in the past, hewing closer to movement-conservative ideology on educational reform-at a moment when his conservative bona fides are increasingly uncertain.

“What I fear is that the Mayor is more committed to finding alternatives to public education than to making sure that it works in the city of New York for all children,” said Ms. Weingarten.

Mr. Giuliani, for instance, turned his back on the U.F.T.’s initial declaration of their readiness to negotiate on Sept. 9, waiting until Nov. 16-and a teacher protest-to set a date for further negotiations. Speaking at a town hall meeting at Intermediate School 61 in Queens on Nov. 16, the Mayor told an audience of restive teachers that they, perhaps more than most other municipal workers, would need to increase their “productivity” significantly if they expected any raise. And he offered gratuitous insults, too: “You’re all supposed to be intellectuals, rather than yellers and screamers. Think a little!”

Elsewhere, Mr. Giuliani has said he is specifically seeking longer working hours and, more controversially, individual “merit pay” pegged to student performance per classroom. Tony Coles, a senior advisor to the Mayor, has gone so far as to deny what is perhaps the main strength of the U.F.T.’s argument: that there is a massive teacher shortage that has led to overcrowded classrooms. (Perhaps not coincidentally, the conservative think tank Manhattan Institute recently published an article in its City Journal titled “The Vanishing Teacher and other U.F.T. Fictions.”)

Of course, it remains to be seen whether City Hall really wants to reach an accord with the teachers. In the past, union leaders say, Mr. Giuliani has opened negotiations with inflammatory assaults on his union foes, only to have surrogates do a little quiet behind-the-scenes outreach. Not this time. Ms. Weingarten has yet to have a private conversation with Mr. Coles, the Mayoral adviser who has taken the lead on negotiations.

“They’re not trying to back-channel with us,” Ms. Weingarten said, sounding a bit puzzled. “I would hope that they’re trying to back-channel with some unions.”

Meanwhile, other unions are monitoring the battle between City Hall and the teachers-and many of them are concluding that Mr. Giuliani has no real interest in reaching an accord anytime soon. Assemblyman Brian McLaughlin, who is also the head of the 1.5-million-member Central Labor Council, put it this way: “It’s malfeasance, in a way-the teachers want to talk about meaningful ideas, and they get deafening silence from the city.” He added, “Merit pay and testing children to determine pay is the most ludicrous idea that I’ve ever heard.”

Not, however, to some of the more conservative voters who swell the ranks of the electorate outside New York City.

“If [Mr. Giuliani] runs for anything ever again, unless it’s Mayor of New York, he’s going to be faced with a far more conservative electorate than the one he’s enjoyed success with,” noted Democratic political consultant Evan Stavisky. “He’s already tough on crime, but he’s also pro-choice, pro-immigration and he has a reasonably good relationship with gays and lesbians. Labor relations is one of the few areas where he can actually maneuver to the right, and he’ll be seen as leaving the city in good financial shape.”

Added Fred Siegel, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute: “If he holds out against the teachers and then a new Mayor comes in and makes considerable concessions that he wouldn’t have made, he’s got an issue for the Governor’s race in 2002. If he gets a contract, then he has an issue there, too.”

Rapid Rudy Redux:  He Targets Unions for His Final Year