City workers packed into City Hall on Wednesday to address concerns over contract negotiations to the Common Council. Employees hailed from almost every public sector labor union in the City, with large turnout for the Department of Public Works, the Ithaca Police Department and Fire Departments.
Around 40 employees cited low workplace morale and employee retention over recent contract negotiations occurring between labor unions and the City. Many pointed to understaffed working conditions and expressed anger over the reduction of the City’s health plan from an indemnity plan to a platinum plan — a switch that results in less coverage and flexibility for workers — without wage compensation, with a few employees specifically calling out City Attorney Ari Lavine for not treating workers fairly.
“Our morale is at an all time low, and it’s because we are essential workers and we deserve a proper compensation,” said Steve Nann, building maintenance manager for the City of Ithaca. “We work hard, and we deserve to be treated fairly, not used and abused.”
City employees directed specific complaints to the negotiation process.
”The City focuses on reducing costs by decreasing employee benefits and negotiating the lowest possible wages workers will accept with no regard for the cost of living changes or inflation,” said City Forester Jeanne Grace.
Brooks Hendricks, a city engineering department employee, expressed issues with the parameters of the negotiation. Union negotiators cannot exceed a certain percentage of wage increase that is mandated by the City’s contract negotiation team and cannot compare contracts with those of management, according to Hendricks.
“Ithaca prides itself on being a progressive city that is labor and worker friendly, but I don’t see that in how the City handles contracts, negotiations and keeping pace of pay in the industry,” said Ethan Bodraruk, a civil engineer at the DPW.
Alix Gresov, a city firefighter in her sixth year of service, said she has experienced firsthand the City’s lack of willingness to work constructively with the fire department union during contract negotiations.
“It is frustrating and disheartening to engage in continued negotiation meetings, only to be met with obstinacy and at times outright refusal to compromise on anything outside the City’s original offer, and we have been working to come up with creative solutions, palatable for both sides,” Gresov said.
Assistant Fire Chief Brian Weinstein, who has been with the department for 29 years, added that he has been involved in union leadership since he started working for the City and has never experienced such poor treatment from negotiators.
“Things have taken a turn, the dialogue is now completely one sided and the City’s negotiation team has absolutely no interest in compromise,” Weinstein said. “The agenda is more about the win than about true need or working together to accomplish our collective goals. The most unpalatable part of this negotiation’s culture is the unwillingness of our elected leaders to hold the negotiators — our City attorney and his team — accountable.”
IPD Officer Mary Orsaio said the police department is understaffed and officers are being overworked to a point that is not sustainable.
Also expressing public comment were two candidates for mayor, Independent Katie Sims and Republican Zachary Winn.
“The City’s negotiations team are not acting in good faith,” Sims said. “Namely, it’s a disservice to reduce the City’s insurance from the indemnity plan to the platinum plan without appropriately compensating workers for this reduction in health coverage.”
Like Weinstein, Winn expressed criticism toward the City attorney.
“I would ask the mayor to request Ari Lavine step down, and if he does not, to please fire him,” Winn said.
Following the public comment period, Acting Mayor Laura Lewis defended her proposed budget and the money set aside for City employees.
“There are really difficult economic realities. Some of you may be aware that last year we had a city budget of $84 million — this year we have a city budget of $89, almost $90 million,” Lewis said. “I am concerned about paying our staff, I am concerned for taxpayers in our community and I just wanted to make a statement that we do care deeply about our workers and much of that, I believe, is reflected in the budget that is before you.”
Alderperson Jorge DeFendini affirmed his support for city workers.
“I take workplace injustice, microaggressions and discrimination deathly seriously, and I don’t believe that this is sustainable,” DeFendini said. “I want to see it rectified, so I am willing to work with all of you.”
Alderperson Cynthia Brock explained that Common Council members are excluded from discussions concerning relations among city staff and that they are not given the authority to be knowledgeable about the negotiation process, which she hopes will change.
“I don’t like that the approach has been taken that our city attorney should treat our staff like the enemy,” Brock said. “I don’t like that our HR director is the one who is going to be opposing his own employees and their needs and hearing their concerns.”
Attorney Lavine then addressed the Common Council and the public, affirming the negotiation team is aware and concerned about morale and retention issues, also noting their nationwide impact.
“The City wants labor contracts on fair and excellent terms settled every bit as much as the folks who are speaking tonight from the union side of the equation,” Lavine said. “I heard a few references tonight to the idea that the labor contract negotiating team somehow views the union as the enemy. That is absolutely not the case, we are absolutely partners in a difficult endeavor.”
Following the meeting, Acting Mayor Lewis released a statement addressing the assertion that the City’s labor negotiation team acted in bad faith.
“[The city negotiation] team — also made up of highly dedicated staff — has spent innumerable hours in meetings with the City’s bargaining units, to negotiate the best possible packages of wages and benefits that the City’s taxpayers can afford,” Lewis wrote. “I have every confidence in our team and was appalled to hear undeniably genuine employee morale issues twisted into offensive and unfounded personal attacks on the City’s negotiating team, and particularly City Attorney Ari Lavine.”
Lewis also affirmed the City’s commitment to work with union leaders to achieve solutions.
“The seasoned negotiators on all sides know that solutions can only be obtained through open-minded and candid discussion at the negotiating table,” the statement read. “We ask the City’s unions to meet us there, so that we can work together, and get it done.”