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Mayor and City Unions Publicly Battle, Privately Talk

By Eileen Buckley

Buffalo, NY – Buffalo Mayor Anthony Masiello says he needs the full cooperation of the public employee unions in order to re-engineer city government. But are there irreconcilable differences in this battle for change?

The mayor's controversial fiscal reforms are making it difficult for the city to reach a compromise. So far the unions have not budged. The Buffalo police union refuses to accept a plan to implement one-officer patrol cars. The Buffalo firefighters union says it will not adopt a "Quint/Midi" apparatus system. Both unions say its a matter of safety to their members and the public.

Local labor expert Alex Blair, a senior extension associate with the Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations, says the mayor gives two impressions -- that he wants to reach a deal with the unions -- and he wants to "break the unions."

"I think the mayor has set a bad precedent by saying the unions have to come to the table and make compromises," Blair said. "Well management, the mayor and the city has to come to the table and be prepared to make compromises as well. The unions are going to need to see what are we getting in exchange for what you want. And it's a trade off system."

Blair says the basic premise of collective bargaining is that no differences are irreconcilable. But he says he expects to see a number of lawsuits, particularly with the police union in this reform battle. If that occurs, the Public Employment Relations Board would step in to begin the arbitration process. Blair says this is something the mayor should avoid.

"If the mayor tries too hard of a line, or plays too hard of a line, these will end up in arbitration, and it will be out of his hands," Blair continued. "If the mayor wants to be seen as the solver of these problems, he can't let this go to arbitration."

The mayor and union leaders have held some discussions. Last week, during the state of the city address, Masiello said the unions are starting to realize the severity of the fiscal crisis. But some unions say they are being blamed for the financial mess.

"Unions have become a dirty word, as one union official put it," said Anthony Hynes, president of Buffalo Firefighters Local 282. "Unions are working people. They are taxpayers. They are consumers. We are you. And to put us off on some side street and say you are the problem - look we don't run the show."

Hynes says he held discussions with Masiello about resolving the city's fiscal crisis. But Hynes says he can not disclose the proposal he offered.

"The first thing we as fire fighters have done is that we made an offer to the mayor," Hynes said. "He knows what that offer is and it wouldn't be proper to negotiate it in public. But I've made an offer to the mayor that I believe to be fair, that I believe would help the city and also help our firefighters."

Mayor Masiello says he, too, will not discuss, in public, Hynes's offer to him. Throughout this fiscal crisis, the city has said union salaries are too costly. So if the union were to offer "no pay" raises as a potential solution, Masiello says that would only be a minimal savings.

"Yes, Tony Hynes is right. We have talked about some situations. I'm not going to discuss them in public. Some deal with salaries. Some deal with the way we deliver service -- how we deliver it," Masiello said. "But the fact of the matter is there is at least a dialogue and a conversation. Hopefully that will lead to significant resolution of this issue."

The mayor wants to privatize city garbage and recycling. That means negotiating with the city's blue collar union -- the American Federation of State County & Municipal Employees. AFSCME Local 264 president William McGuire says he does not support privatization or a proposed four day work week.

"If you're only doing a four day work week, then what services are you not going to include on that fifth day?" McGuire asked. "Are you going to close down City Hall for one day a week? And how does a four day work week actually help us. Are you talking four, ten hour days or are they talking four, eight hour days and cut out 20 percent of peoples incomes. I don't see how that could possibly help and then you're talking about a 20 percent loss of services."

McGuire says private business leaders working closely with the city are pushing for privatization for their own benefit. McGuire says that's why he is skeptical of any advice they're offering the mayor.

"Their interest is to create more business for themselves. Some subsidiary of theirs will get some of these jobs that they are trying to privatize," McGuire continued. "There is definitely a conflict of interest. They're out here pushing all this and they are the ones getting largest breaks."

But Masiello says it is important to remember that he is "negotiating" for Buffalo's future -- trying to repair finances for the next ten years. He says he is willing to listen to any of the unions suggestions that would impact the bottom line.

"I'm going to fix this problem," Masiello said. "I'm going to deliver to the City of Buffalo and its residents, today and tomorrow, services they can afford with out sacrificing the quality of service to them."

But labor expert Alex Blair says if the mayor truly wants to resolve issues with the unions, he must show how management will be reformed in this crisis.

"One of the best offers the mayor could make is say to the blue collar union for example, you know how to do this work. We're going to eliminate supervisors. We're going to get rid of administrators at City Hall in order to allow you to do what you know how to do," Blair said.

Blair says what gives unions "collective bargaining advantage" is the lack of professional labor relations experts within government agencies. Many private sector companies retain these experts because they understand unions and business. Blair says retaining labor professionals would be critical to the city's long term fiscal solutions.