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Contentious union meeting leaves deal to avert layoffs in question

A meeting among the city’s public unions over a proposal that would help avert more than 4,100 teacher layoffs erupted in “fireworks” today, leaving prospects for a budget deal uncertain.

According to a union official who attended, dissension was sparked over the proposal to withdraw millions of dollars per month from a union-controlled health insurance fund. That money would be redirected toward closing a $270 million budget gap in the education department.

“Let’s just say there was a lot of fireworks,” the person said.

The meeting was called by Harry Nespoli, President of the Municipal Labor Committee, an umbrella organization of all of the city’s public unions. Earlier this week, he floated the idea of tapping into the fund – known as the Health Insurance Stabilization Fund – at a smaller meeting between just union leaders.

The meeting today, which was open to a larger swath of union members, was also planned by Nespoli. He said he hoped to build consensus on whether or not to move forward with negotiations. Now, it’s clear that’s not the case.

After this afternoon’s meeting, Nespoli issued a brief statement. “I can tell you that there is a lot of mistrust of City Hall based upon the way we have been treated in the last eight months or so. That is all I am going to say right now.”

Mayor Bloomberg has maintained a hard line on teacher layoffs since November. But this week, he expressed an openness to compromise to avert the cuts after Nespoli and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn proposed the idea.

But unions that wouldn’t directly benefit from the proposal aren’t fully on board, especially since the fund is available to all city employees.

Yesterday, Nespoli estimated that the fund totaled just over $300 million and said tapping it dry was off the table. “I can’t take everything out,” he said yesterday.

One version of the proposal, according to the official, involved withdrawing between $20-$30 million per month from the fund. Projected over 12 months, that would total a range of $240 million and $360 million.

That would meet the estimated $270 million that Mayor Bloomberg says the city would save from laying off more than 4,000 teachers. A separate estimate, conducted by the Independent Budget Office, pegs those savings at $100 million less.

Negotiations are by no means halted, but Nespoli insisted yesterday that any deal would have to involve bargaining from all three players.

“We can’t cover everything,” he said. “This has to be a combination of the unions, the mayor and the city council.”

Unified support from the union coalition is crucial, however. In order for any deal to pass, it has to be voted on and approved by the MLC, which is made up of 90 unions.

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