December 28, 2001
By William Van Auken
The state Court of Appeals Dec. 20 upheld the constitutionality of a law granting the state Public Employment Relations Board jurisdiction over the arbitration of collective bargaining disputes involving city police officers and firefighters.
The decision exhausts the city's challenges to the law and sets the stage for the selection of a PERB arbitration panel and the beginning of hearings in the 17-month-old contract dispute between the city and the 27,000-member Patrolmen's Benevolent Association.
'Time to Solve Problems'
"Now the arbitration process can proceed without the distraction of litigation by the city, and we can finally reach a fair contract settlement that will reward the city's police officers for their years and years of heroism and solve the city's police recruitment and retention crisis," PBA President Patrick J. Lynch said in a statement on the high court's decision.
Union sources indicated that the PBA and the city have already selected arbitrators for the panel and a third "neutral" member could be selected within the next week.
The Court of Appeals decision upheld for the most part decisions rendered by the Albany State Supreme Court and the Appellate Division in finding the law, passed in 1998 with the PBA's backing, constitutional.
The police union has long held that it has a better chance at PERB of arguing for parity with higher-paid surrounding jurisdictions than it does before the city's Board of Collective Bargaining. A measure passed by the State Legislature in 1996 to grant city police and firefighters PERB arbitration was struck down by the Appeals Court on the grounds that it violated home-rule provisions of the State Constitution.
The law passed in 1998, however, was broadened to cover police and fire unions in any municipality that has a local "mini-PERB" such as the BCB for resolving contract disputes. Only New York City and Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester counties have such bodies.
The Appeals Court held that despite this change, the effects of the law still fell exclusively on these four jurisdictions. Nonetheless, it ruled that the State Legislature had acted constitutionally by enacting the measure to meet a serious statewide concern: to "enhance public safety and prevent the loss or interruption of vital public services" by ensuring the orderly resolution of police bargaining disputes.
BCB Retains Scope"
The high court dissented from the Appellate Division in holding that the law does not grant PERB exclusive jurisdiction in determining whether demands or contract provisions are mandatory subjects of bargaining.
"Once a police or fire union pursues impasse resolution assistance from PERB and PERB declares an impasse, it has jurisdiction over scope of bargaining issues between the PBA and the city, to the extent necessary for PERB to exercise its exclusive jurisdiction to resolve impasses," the high court ruled. "Until such time, BCB retains jurisdiction to determine the scope of bargaining outside of the impasse context. We decline to adopt the Appellate Division's proposition that 'PERB' has exclusive jurisdiction over scope of bargaining disputes between the PBA and the City."
The BCB will retain jurisdiction over improper practice charges, including charges that a union or the city is refusing to bargain in good faith, the Appeal Court wrote.
The court battle between the PBA and the city began with the Office of Labor Relations filing a scope petition with the BCB, arguing that some PBA demands were not mandatory subjects of bargaining and seeking to strip the existing contract of the "48-hour rule" and provisions dealing with the scheduling of Police Officers' tours.
The PBA responded by rejecting the BCB's jurisdiction over scope of bargaining and filing a declaration of impasse with PERB. Both sides subsequently went to State Supreme Court seeking a ruling on the constitutionality of the law placing the PBA under PERB jurisdiction.