While the City of Ithaca Common Council meeting on Wednesday had multiple items on its agenda, continued concerns from the City’s employees over contract negotiations attracted nearly a hundred community members.
The same concerns arose at the November Common Council meeting, but the city workers who expressed these troubles to the Council said not much has advanced since then.
“As the governing body and administration, the message we’ve gotten from you is that you don’t care,” said Tom Condzella, president of the Ithaca Police Benevolent Association. “We know that some of you individually care deeply and are being stonewalled for making progress by the city attorney and the mayor. However, as the overall governing body of elected officials and policy makers, it appears to us that the Common Council is either unable or unwilling to make progress for the workers in the city and our community.”
Workers from the Ithaca Workers Coalition, which is comprised of five unions — the Ithaca Professional Firefighters Association, Ithaca Police Benevolent Association, City Executive Association, Civil Service Employees Association Department of Public Works Unit and CSEA Admin Unit — said they have either been without a contract or have not received raises for years.
“What we’re really asking for is to include workers in a conversation with the city administration, city managers and council people to come up with better ways to engage in contract negotiations,” said Jeanne Grace, president of the City Executive Association bargaining unit. “In the three months since we first brought this issue to the forefront, that has still not happened. Please meet with us.”
The situation has attracted statewide attention. Kevin Eitzmann, director of field operations for the New York State AFL-CIO, said he covers the entire state from Buffalo to Long Island, encompassing two and a half million members. Eitzmann stated before the Council that he has never seen all city unions come together like they have in Ithaca.
“Almost a year ago, these workers came to us to ask for help, each describing a situation in the city where they felt that their voices weren’t being heard, that their membership was being disrespected at the bargaining table and during normal labor management interactions,” Eitzmann said. “It was clear to us that something wasn’t right in the City of Ithaca, and we needed to support their efforts.”
Mary Orsaio, a police officer and Ithaca Police Department LGBTQ liasion, said that the Council emphasizes that this is a statewide problem — but she and other officers have friends in other municipalities who say the compensation issue is much worse in Ithaca. Multiple city employees expressed concerns about the City’s ability to attract qualified candidates and retain skilled workers due to the less-than-competitive salary offerings.
“Ithaca has a positive reputation as one of the most progressive towns in the Northeast,” said Brendan McGovern, member of the Midstate and Broome Tioga AFL-CIO Central Labor Councils. “But it has also deservingly gained an equally negative reputation for its egregious treatment of its public workers.”
George Apgar, president of the Ithaca Fire Department union, said that the health impacts of the job are becoming increasingly prevalent and that the benefits of workers compensation are not enough to adequately address their needs.
“You’re supposed to have six assistant chiefs at work. You only have five right now,” Apgar said. “If things don’t change, all five of us are leaving this year. I’ll leave that on you to sort out.”
Police officers in the meeting expressed similar sentiments.
“It’s been 90 days [since the last union showing at Common Council]. What have you done? The public workers still cannot effectively and safely do our jobs in the city. You stressed us all to the max,” Condzella said. “It’s impacted our health, our families and the personal lives of every worker standing behind me tonight. It’s also impacting our community. Ithaca is becoming increasingly unsafe as public safety services continue to deteriorate, namely police and fire.”
Many speakers made pointed attacks at City Mayor Laura Lewis and City Attorney Ari Lavine for what they feel has been a lack of attention devoted to this cause.
“These unions have tried to play nice and negotiate fairly many times in the past. This method of communication is clearly not working. To call the people who plow the streets in freezing conditions, clean your toilets, respond to emergencies and build your office furniture an angry mob and obscene spectacle shows a lack of empathy and compassion in city hall administration,” Orsaio said, referring to Lavine’s comments during a Nov. 9 Common Council meeting. “Empathy and compassion are two characteristics we look for when recruiting new officers to join our police force. I highly urge that City Hall starts adopting these values as well.”
After the public comment portion of the meeting, Common Council members addressed some of the allegations made against them.
“Council has taken very specific steps to address the needs that have been articulated by staff,” Mayor Lewis said. “And these are, I believe, not band-aid measures but concrete measures.”
Lewis said that the City’s negotiating team is led by an experienced negotiator with extensive knowledge in New York public sector labor relations. She also stated that the newly appointed Chief of Staff has been added to the negotiation team, and Lewis recently appointed Alderperson George McGonigal to serve as the Council labor liaison, a role in which he will provide regular updates to the Common Council. Lewis said that dates have been set for some upcoming negotiations and there will be executive sessions in which Council will hear specific updates on progress.
“It took a long time to get this bad. If we could make them better immediately we would. I don’t think that’s possible,” McGonigal said. “But we will work hard at it.”
Although Alderperson Cynthia Brock said she is not directly involved in the contract negotiations, she feels confident in the City to move this process forward.
“Every day, we rely on you, we need you, we value you — and you feel unheard. And this process is moving glacially slow for you. And I recognize that,” Brock said. “The difficulty of government is it does move glacially slow. There’s a lot to analyze, obviously, we need to know what resources are available before offers can be made to change benefits. This is a complicated process.”
Workers said they had heard similar assurances in the past and made it clear that they will continue to fight the City if negotiations do not move forward in a timely manner.
“We can proudly declare that Ithaca workers are union strong, and we implore the elected officials listening to worker statements today to create real change in the relationship with your workers,” Eitzmann said. “They are ready to be willing partners to make this city a better place for residents and workers.”