Thompson, Taylor, and the MTA

by Nicole Gelinas |  | NY Torch

Mayoral candidate Bill Thompson, currently the city comptroller, suggested privately to one of the city’s powerhouse labor unions that the Taylor Law, which has governed public-sector labor relations in New York State for 42 years (with various amendments along the way), needs reform.

Thompson may have a point. But we should be wary.

For years, Taylor Law “reform” has been New York politicalspeak for tilting the law’s balance even further in favor of public-sector workers, at the taxpayer’s expense.

Mainstream Democrats, for example, have this year suggested tweaking the law to allow workers to strike if they have “utilized and exhausted” the bargaining process.

Most New Yorkers know the Taylor Law for that prohibition against public-employee strikes — a provision that Thompson says “should be kept intact,” although he hasn’t said whether he favors any change to this area.

But even before the Taylor Law, New York prohibited public-sector strikes.

What the Taylor Law did was offer labor some heavy protections in return for that prohibition.

Some of these protections “have evolved to the distinct disadvantage of management” and the taxpayers, as the Empire Center’s Terry O’Neil and E.J. McMahon described in a 2007 study.

Rather than focusing on the strike part, Thompson, through a spokesperson, told PolitickerNY that he’d like to review some of these other aspects of the Taylor Law, specifically, the law’s provisions requiring binding arbitration of labor disputes that have reached impasse:

[T]he frequency and protracted nature of many recent disputes is an obvious indicator that the law and its accompanying mechanisms may be in need of some adjustments. There must be a willingness for all parties to engage in the process. … Over the past 8 years, Mayor Bloomberg, despite his statement, has displayed no … willingness to tackle the issue. We can no longer tolerate a system that allows one side to stay away from the bargaining table without consequences. Arbitration is not the answer — the Taylor Law was instituted to promote negotiations — not set up a dysfunctional system whereby so many contracts are forced settlements resulting from binding arbitration.

Last week’s arbitrated settlement between the state-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Transport Workers Union shows that Thompson is broadly correct when he says that this system is “dysfunctional,” although he’s got to say publicly and in detail what his problem is, and how he’d fix it.

Specifically, because Thompson made his criticisms in a successful attempt to get a union’s endorsement, it’s reasonable to ask: does Thompson think that the Taylor Law favors taxpayers too heavily, at the expense of the unions?

The MTA deal is a reflection of how the one of the problems that O’Neil and E.J. McMahon described, in how the Taylor Law already favors unions, not taxpayers:

[T]he ability to turn to compulsory arbitration created an incentive for many government employers and their unions to simply “disagree and let the arbitrator decide.” Arbitration made it possible for some government employers to steer contract talks towards “imposed” settlements with costs that otherwise would have been difficult to defend before voters. Elected officials could thus avoid direct responsibility for big pay increases-pinning the blame on the unelected arbitrator-while avoiding tension with … unions.

Though O’Neil and McMahon were addressing the Taylor Law as it relates to fire and police unions, the deal between the MTA and the state clearly reflected the same problems.

The governor and the MTA used the arbitration process to do an end run around political accountability in the way the report describes.

Thompson hasn’t said whether he thinks this avoidance of political accountability is the problem.

Further, the candidate hasn’t said whether he’d adopt some of the recommendations O’Neil and McMahon suggested. To give taxpayers a fairer shake, their report suggests changes to the law that would require arbitrators to weigh more heavily a public employer’s “ability to pay” in making their decisions.

In the MTA deal, the arbitrators who decided the deal under the Taylor Law process took a laughable approach to “ability to pay.”

Nor has Thompson said whether he favors subjecting public-sector labor negotiations to some openness — an important question, because the governor and the MTA were able to achieve their MTA deal in almost complete secrecy.