Making Lemonade

Stephen Goldsmith and Michael Bloomberg photo: City Limits

“Let’s remember what we really want. This is about getting rid of civil service. It’s my last term. No one can hurt me. We’ve already lined up our media friends. By next year, all anyone will remember is that the San Men pulled a slow-down and we instituted measures to prevent that from happening again.”

“But Mr. Mayor, what about our decision not to declare a snow emergency?”

“I was out of town. Goldsmith was in D.C. They’ll beat us up mercilessly about it, but we’ll just tough it out, the way we did with Cathie Black’s appointment. When we’re ready, we’ll admit some errors.”

“Everyone will blame John and Joe anyway. They won’t talk. No one knows who said what. We’ve already thrown in EMS. And the Federal investigation will muzzle the union. All they can say is, ‘We can’t comment on that now. It’s part of a criminal inquiry.’ We can use the same excuse until we’re ready to go public. By the time the press figures things out, we’ll have what we need from Albany.”

“Mr. Mayor, we looked at the media numbers: Almost two-thirds of the stories are on our side.”

“It started with Halloran and it’s ballooned the way we expected. With the Feds, DOI, and the DAs all doing probes, the only story with legs will be the slow-down.”

“John already distributed the GPS phones in Brooklyn 14. Greenfield is satisfied. The Council hearings will be manageable. With those shots of the trucks parked on Coney Island Avenue, we have plenty of evidence. And we’re making sure that our people are feeding the blogs all the right comments.”

“Once we roll out the cell phones city-wide, and 125 Worth Street is tracking 2,200 garbage trucks, we can get rid of more supervisors. The public won’t object. They’re already convinced the workers were the problem. We’ll even offer people a free app so they can track the truck that serves them and find out whether it’s on schedule. This is the app age. They’ll eat it up.”

“Who came up with that idea?

“It’s irrelevant. The important thing is that we’re breaking the supervisor’s union. When our people in Albany move to kill civil service, Rupert and Mort will chime in, the Governor and the Senate will endorse the ‘reforms,’ and the Assembly will have no choice but to go along. We’ll give union leadership a few crumbs so they can save face and Silver can look good. The days of civil service are numbered.”

* * *

We made this conversation up. But its essence draws on reality: a confident and willful technocrat in charge, a cost-cutting deputy mayor to spearhead the mayor’s “program,” foot-high blocks of ice studding unsalted roadbeds and keeping plow blades elevated, supervisors undermined by threats of lay-offs and demotions, enough worker slow-downs to divert attention from City Hall, and a citizenry that gets most of its perceptions from media controlled by billionaires who — like the mayor —- want lower government costs, a weaker Democratic Party, and the demise of civil service unions.

The NYC Sanitation Department already has eliminated 200 supervisors, with 200 more due to go this month and another 200 to follow. City Hall probably feels it won’t need bosses to follow trucks around once all vehicles are being tracked by GPS. The next step could be equipping trucks with scales to weigh trash and monitor worker productivity in real time: sanitation workers being paid by the pound.

The key to the public’s acceptance of City Hall’s strategy — if that’s what this fiction resembles — has been to hype the message that Sanitation workers and supervisors were the primary reason for the Christmas Week snow disaster.

But worker behavior — or misbehavior — was fully predictable, and controllable by City Hall: A Snow Emergency declaration on Christmas Day, when commissioner John Doherty said City Hall knew the strength of the oncoming storm, would have meant plenty of morale-building overtime; further, a press announcement saying supervisor demotions were being reconsidered could have energized experienced snow fighters. Street salting outside of Manhattan could have made next-day plowing more effective.

The Transit Authority has yet to adequately explain why it couldn’t revise its decision not to mount chains on its buses. The TA has a desk at the city’s Cadman Plaza East emergency operations center along with Police, Fire, Sanitation, DOT, and OEM, among others. Presumably Transit was present on Saturday, when snow-fighting decisions were being made.

Without chains, buses got stuck on major thoroughfares. Outside of Manhattan, salt never made it beyond the major highways onto city streets. Once the storm hit, snow fell so fast that salt spreading was ineffective. With buses clogging Snow Emergency Streets, Sanitation’s plows couldn’t move. Neither could EMS’s ambulances.

Whether most New Yorkers subscribe to the “worker-slow-down-conspiracy theory” version or the “out-of-town-during-a-perfect-storm” version is irrelevant to the Bloomberg administration. City Hall will shape public perception of the Blizzard of 2010 to advance its labor agenda. From Bloomberg’s perspective, he will make lemonade from lemons.

But eliminating half of Sanitation’s field supervisors could destroy the main promotion path for its rank and file. This could damage departmental morale, the quality of new recruits, and the cohesiveness of the organization.

Stephen Goldmith’s academic experience and patrician orientation may be blinding him to the importance of Sanitation’s organizational dynamics. His efficiency initiatives could hurt if another major storm hits. For this, he could end up being made the biggest fall guy for the Bloomberg administration. He’ll return to Harvard and write a book about his NYC experience.

But this too, could be part of a plan.

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One response to “Making Lemonade

  1. The Mayor’s labor agenda is neatly laid out in the recommendations of the report released on January 7, 2011. From the Mayor’s press release: “Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg today released the report of the Workforce Reform Task Force, chaired by Martha Hirst, former Commissioner of the Department of Citywide Administrative Services. The report outlines 23 specific steps to improve the civil service system so that City workers can perform their job functions without being overburdened and constrained by rules and narrow classifications.”

    The task force was manned by 10 administration officials, no one from the unions, and goes a long way to fundamentally reforming (read gutting) the civil service merit system. The unions, needless to say, were vocal in their opposition.

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