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More binding arbitration? Albany's legislative leaders fall out of step on law increasing taxpayers' costs

Atop the list of Albany's onerous fiats is the state's generosity in allowing public safety unions to gain binding arbitration. It's Public Enemy No. 1, hurting local governments and, by extension, taxpayers statewide.

So why did the Assembly and Senate pass a law Wednesday -- sponsored by Buffalo Niagara's senior Albany powers, Majority Leader Paul A. Tokasz and Sen. Dale M. Volker -- expanding binding arbitration to Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority police and firefighters? Gov. George E. Pataki should veto this bill, as he did last year.

Unions won this right in 1974 under the Taylor Law, in return for which they agreed to give up strikes. But to the frustration of mayors, supervisors and county executives, here's how it plays out: Any lingering contract disagreements -- most often on wages, pensions, health care and work rules -- that a city and union can't settle go to binding arbitration.

Given the law's wording, cities rarely win binding arbitration. The fact is, this doesn't work. Unions learned to play out talks, knowing the odds favor them. They can't do worse by appealing to arbitration, while cities do. The three-person panels are not required to consider if a city can afford the arbitrated award. And the panel must consider peer contracts, which means if one high contract is approved in a region, it quickly becomes the mean for all others as a domino effect ensues.

"We see a growing trend of city unions bypassing serious negotiation to go directly to binding arbitration," said Peter A. Baynes, executive director of the New York State Conference of Mayors. "So we think that shows the unions believe they can get a better deal from unelected arbitrators."

Just this week, Syracuse Mayor Matt Driscoll announced his city had entered "a new era of crisis," with a $26 million deficit, due in part to a binding arbitration award to city police. California, Texas and Florida public safety unions have neither binding arbitration nor the right to strike. The local case is nonsensical: If NFTA police or firefighters struck, other police or fire personnel would cover their work. With no power to strike, the unions relinquish nothing in return for this gift.

Volker says it's a myth it raises labor costs. He also said it's unfair the NFTA unions are the only local ones without the right. We say repeal or modify the Taylor Law so binding arbitration is a rare last resort after documenting serious, two-party labor negotiations; and include ability to pay.

NFTA police salaries are 30 percent below peers, Tokasz says, so the NFTA trains officers only to lose them to other forces, and arbitration could raise salaries and stabilize the work force. NFTA police averaged $65,000 a year in 2005, including overtime, three times the average worker's pay here. Firefighters averaged $46,000.

Whether the NFTA dealt fairly with its police and fire unions is irrelevant. If it didn't, the unions could file unfair labor grievances with the Public Employment Relations Board. But don't extend binding arbitration to punish public managers for driving a hard bargain on the taxpayers' behalf.

NFTA Executive Director Lawrence Meckler -- whose agency likely would hike transit fares to pay a 30 percent raise -- summed up the problem: "You really don't know what the cost would be because if a contract impasse would go to an arbitrator, we'd basically be at the mercy of an arbitrator."

It's extraordinary that our most influential Albany leaders would be so out of touch with taxpayer needs that they would work against them, disregarding what's best for the economy.