The current labor negotiations between New York City and its municipal labor unions are a critical first test for the mayor. Over 150 municipal labor contracts have expired, and members of these unions -- City police officers, teachers, health care workers, firefighters and many others -- are looking for substantial retroactive and prospective wage increases that easily dwarf the projected funds available.
But the size of the challenge facing the mayor is actually larger than many realize.
While the focus has been on the negotiations with the unions representing New York City employees, missing from the picture are the thousands of union members whose salaries are entirely paid for with City funds, but who are not on the City payroll. These individuals instead are employed by non-profits that the City has contracted with to provide essential services, including workers in senior centers, homeless shelters, early childhood centers and elsewhere. These individuals should not be forgotten during the negotiation process.
New York City has traditionally engaged in what is known as "pattern bargaining" with municipal labor unions -- where the percentage wage increases granted to one union "sets the pattern" and is applied to the other municipal union contracts. Unfortunately, the City has excluded the non-profit union workers from the pattern -- even though they are paid for with City funds -- leaving them woefully underpaid compared to their municipal union colleagues.
Take, for example, early childhood education teachers. New York City has established an extensive (but vastly underfunded) system that provides low-income families with early education services for their children ages six weeks through four years old. While the City could use its own unionized employees to provide these services, it has instead chosen to contract with non-profit providers, paying the non-profits significantly lower amounts and allowing the City to reap substantial savings for years.
These non-profits (such as Union Settlement Association, which I lead in East Harlem) employ unionized teachers in the classroom, and these teachers are paid for with City dollars, but their salaries are much lower than the salaries of unionized teachers employed by the City.
For example, the starting salary for a certified teacher with a bachelor's degree in a public school pre-K classroom is 25 percent higher than the salary of a teacher with the exact same credentials in the pre-K classroom at a non-profit center ($45,530 versus $36,542). The disparity is even greater for experienced teachers -- exceeding 100 percent ($83,412 versus $41,265) for teachers with 15 years of experience. Moreover, the public school teachers enjoy significantly better health and pension benefits than unionized teachers in non-profit centers.
If we truly care about preparing our children to succeed in school, we must eliminate this "separate but unequal" funding system. The quality and salary of a child's teacher in a City-funded program should not depend on whether the closest classroom is in a public school or a non-profit center. The same is true for seniors, the homeless and others who rely on City-funded services.
In short, when the City creates and pays for a program, it should provide sufficient funding for the nonprofit employees working under City contracts to receive the same pay as City employees performing the exact same functions.
Fortunately, there are hints that Mayor de Blasio may be moving to correct this inequity. His plan for universal pre-kindergarten (UPK) classes for all four-year-olds in New York City will be implemented in both public schools and at nonprofit centers, and the Mayor has made clear that additional resources are needed to ensure that certified teachers receive adequate salaries. We are still awaiting more details on the proposal, but hopefully that means true pay parity - not just for the teachers, but also for the other staff members working at these centers.
Equal treatment for all City-funded workers inevitably will increase the cost of any City labor contracts settlements, because under a true "pattern bargaining" system, the wage increases provided to the municipal workers should be granted to workers in non-profits paid for with City funds. But that is not a bad thing -- equal work for equal pay is one of the defining principles of the progressive movement.
Paying comparable wages to all City-funded workers is also fully consistent with the mayor's efforts to reduce income disparity in New York. The unionized teacher aides, assistant bookkeepers, cooks and custodial workers at my centers all make less than $26,000 per year, and many other workers similarly are struggling to survive in low-wage jobs under government-funded contracts.
Mayor de Blasio should seize this opportunity to advance his progressive agenda by extending pattern bargaining to these low-paid nonprofit workers. The principle of "equal work for equal pay" should be an official policy for New York City.