ITHACA, N.Y.—City officials can say there isn’t a single union in Ithaca without a labor contract after Common Council voted Wednesday to approve agreements with the City Executive Association and the Ithaca Police Benevolent Association. 

The situation is a sea change from almost a year ago when all of the City of Ithaca’s public sector unions began demonstrating before Common Council, complaining that the morale of the city’s labor force had reached rock bottom as departments struggled with short staffing, uncompetitive pay, and what they described as a combative experience at the bargaining table with city negotiators.

The moment has both labor leaders and city officials feeling optimistic.

“I’m very pleased with our negotiating process in its current form and it has resulted in agreement,” Ithaca Mayor Laura Lewis said. “And that speaks to the value we placed on our city employees.”

Valued was not how the city’s employees felt last fall. Labor leaders and workers filed into City Hall on Nov. 2, 2022, inundating the public comment section of a Common Council meeting with their complaints, and delaying the council’s vote to approve the 2023 budget. At the time, four of the city’s six bargaining units were working under expired labor contracts, and similar demonstrations would persist into the winter months.

Jeanne Grace, president of the City Executive Association, said “I think that we were all really feeling like labor wasn’t really a top priority for the city and settling labor contracts didn’t feel like a top priority to the city.”

The widespread feeling of disenfranchisement led to the formation of the Ithaca Public Workers Coalition, now a platform for the city’s public sector workers as well as the Bang’s Ambulance union to advocate for the interests of organized labor. 

Justin Perkins, president of the Department of Public Works (DPW) union, said he had “never seen morale lower.” Now, Perkins thinks “the city stepped up.”

“I’m happy to hear that everybody’s working with a contract,” he said.

The city’s union workers are receiving wage increases, but the major concession that the city has been able to extract over the course of its contract negotiations is reducing what it spends on health care.

The DPW union reached its contract with the city in March, and council approved a ratified contract for the Ithaca Firefighters union and the Fire Department’s Chief Officers union in October — all three of which had expired at the end of 2020.

Council’s approval of the Executive Association’s tentative agreement, which expired at the end of 2021, marked the resolution of the final out of term contract. The city reached a tentative agreement with the Ithaca Police union before its contract expired at the end of 2023. 

Lewis said the council and city administration “definitely heard the city staff’s expression for change.” 

Labor leaders in the city had demanded that the city change its practices at the bargaining table, which they alleged was unproductive, uncollaborative, and showed that the city did not care about its workers. The blame for this dynamic would be placed on City Attorney Ari Lavine, who had served as the city’s lead negotiator for a decade.

Ithaca Police union President Tom Condzella said, “I don’t want to relive the past, but the city attorney had a real way of just kind of damaging any forward progress at the table.”

Lavine forcefully rebuked descriptions of his conduct at the negotiating table as “character assassination” following city worker’s initial demonstrations in November 2022. 

Lavine has maintained he was carrying out the bargaining strategy set forth by city leadership, and prioritizing the long term financial health of the city. But he would recommend that he step away as the lead negotiator following city worker’s public outcry, and be replaced by an outside attorney. Albany-based labor attorney Jim Roemer would join the city’s negotiating team, as well as Chief of Staff Deb Mohlenhoff after being hired in December 2022. The city’s Common Council also created a labor liaison position to report back to its members on the progress of labor negotiations. 

After Lavine left the negotiating table, Condzella described the change in bargaining as being like “night and day.” He, as well as Grace and Perkins, each said that they hope the city continues with the changes it made to its negotiating team.

The conflict between the city’s labor leaders and Lavine is a fraught subject — one that Mayor Lewis said she did not want to comment on.

“I’m very interested in moving forward,” Lewis said. “I’m, as I said, very pleased that we have had effective negotiations that have resulted in signed contracts.”

She emphasized, “We want to be able to recruit, reward, and retain city employees. And I think the new contracts enable us to do all those things.”

Labor leaders in the city are feeling optimistic about recruiting employees to their beleaguered departments. The Ithaca Police Department has 38 active officers, according to Condzella. 

Along with raises across the department, he said that the three-year deal raises the starting salary for officers in the department from $57,461 to $74,000 as a result of the new contract, which has him feeling hopeful for the department’s future recruitment efforts. 

According to the tentative agreement the City Executive Association reached with the city, its members will receive retro pay for 2022 while they worked under an expired contract, and approximately an 8.5% salary increase for 2023 and retro pay for the part of the year they worked under an expired contract. City Executive Association members will receive 3% salary increases in 2024, and 2025.

Members of the Ithaca Firefighters union will see retroactive payments for 2021, 2022, and part of 2023 according to their tentative agreements. Their members will see raises of 3% for 2021 and 2022, 3.25% in 2023, and 3.5% for 2024, 2025, and 2026.

Leadership at the Ithaca Firefighters union did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In a written statement sent to The Ithaca Voice, Lavine said he considered it “welcome news that our dedicated City employees are receiving a sizable raise in this inflationary time.”

Raising the wages of city employees “was a shared objective throughout the decade that I chaired labor contract negotiations, during which Mayor Myrick and I settled contracts with all City bargaining units,” Lavine said. However, he said balancing those raises with the “long term financial feasibility for the City and its tax paying public” was always a central question in negotiations.

“There are no easy answers,” Lavine said, “but now that the Common Council has answered that question with these contracts, it will need to adopt budgets capable of funding them for years to come.”

The city of Ithaca’s 2024 budget process is currently underway. Officials have cautioned that all costs are rising. The mayor’s proposed budget is currently $101 million, marking a large increase from the city’s $90.3 million 2023 budget. In 2022, the approved budget was $84.3 million. 

Alderperson George McGonigal, Common Council’s labor liaison, said he felt the city’s negotiating process has greatly improved, and that he’s happy that the city was able to settle its labor contracts with its employees. But this is all coming at a financial cost, he cautioned.

“The city’s making a conscious effort to make its employees feel valued and make them happier,” McGonigal said. “The asterisk attached to that is it’s going to cost a [lot] of money.”

Jimmy Jordan is Senior Reporter for The Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact him at Connect with him on Twitter @jmmy_jrdn