When former Mayor Bill de Blasio took office in 2014, he faced an enormous hurdle: settling every one of the city’s 152 contracts covering more than 300,000 municipal workers that had lapsed in the final years of the administration of his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg.

He delivered quickly, reaching agreements within his first months in office with the United Federation of Teachers and District Council 37, the largest municipal workers’ union, together representing 60% of the city’s workforce. During his tenure, the Office of Labor Relations settled nearly every single contract before the city.

But one expired contract stands out. It covered some 100 Staten Island Ferry captains and mates – or did until 2010. It remains unsettled to this day, to the bewilderment and frustrations of workers, local elected officials and commuters facing last-minute route shortages.

Robert Linn, the commissioner of the Office of Labor Relations for most of de Blasio’s administration until his retirement in January 2019, said he didn’t know why the matter was not resolved during his tenure.

“We settled every single labor agreement that was open, I gather, except this one. What is extraordinary here is that you’ve got 360,000 workers, and this is a group of about 100 workers who are the only ones who are unsettled for three administrations,” he said in an interview Friday morning. “This is a unique group that is still open under three administrations. And the question is, what is the reason for that?”

He added: “In the de Blasio administration, for 151 out of 152 bargaining units, we found solutions…. We didn’t for this one, and I don’t know what the answer to that is.”

Meanwhile, the crews work for wages that haven’t budged since the year the iPad debuted.

Captains’ pay tops out at $70,000 a year, while salaries for mates are a maximum of $57,875 — a situation their union says must be remedied immediately. 

“A new contract that offers fair wages and the backpay our members have waited 12 years for would provide respectful recognition to Staten Island Ferry workers and promote efficient and safer service for commuters, citizens and visitors,” Roland Rexha, secretary-treasurer of the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association said in a statement on Thursday.

Last week, staffing shortages led to service disruptions that peaked Wednesday and prompted Mayor Eric Adams to accuse workers of staying home from work in protest. In a statement Thursday morning, a DOT spokesperson said that on Wednesday, “nearly half of the day’s captains and a third of the day’s assistant captains called out,” starting in the afternoon.

Rush-ahour Staten Island commuters were stranded at the Whitehall ferry terminal after a worker shortage reduced service, August 3, 2022. Credit: Katie Honan/THE CITY

In response, Rexha said: “We are unaware of any significant call-outs.”

The union says the accusation is false, and that it’s the city’s inability to retain and attract workers that led to service disruptions that built up for weeks and peaked Wednesday. Service resumed by mid-Thursday at regularly scheduled 15-minute intervals.

With bad blood now boiling, Adams and the union have to somehow settle the matter, after two predecessors failed.

In the union’s most recent offer, dated May 26 and reviewed by THE CITY, the union agreed to an 18% raise over the 12-year life of the contract, following the pattern set by city labor negotiators in their deals with other unions, in waves that began in 2014 and 2018.

MEBA is also asking for funding and resources to train and attract new recruits, something the city has not agreed to, according to the union. 

A spokesperson for Adams pointed to relevant remarks the mayor made Wednesday: “We will continue to engage with these ferry workers’ union to reach a voluntary, pattern-conforming agreement in the same way that we have done with virtually all other city unions for these rounds of bargaining.”

Adams inherited an unfilled obligation dating back to his predecessor’s predecessor.

“Bloomberg was notorious for not wanting to negotiate,” recounted state Democratic Sen. Diane Savino, whose district includes part of Staten Island. “He left at least most of the city’s bargaining units without a contract in place, and the de Blasio administration had set about to try and settle all of them. Why they refused to settle this contract is a mystery that only they can answer.”

State Sen. Diane Savino (D-Brooklyn and Staten Island) speaks in the Capitol Building in Albany in 2019. Credit: New York State Senate

She added: “Unfortunately for the incoming administration, this has been dumped in their lap.”

Early Warnings

Elected leaders have been pushing the city for years to settle the bargaining dispute — calls that have only intensified in the last week.

Savino, who said she reached out to de Blasio repeatedly in the final years of his administration on the matter, pushed back on Adams’ claims that the workers were engaging in a sick-out.

“The union says that that’s not what was happening. I’m going to take them at their word,” she said. “Until somebody gives me a reason to believe that they’re lying, I tend to accept what they tell me is true.”

Another Staten Island elected official who gave Adams early warning of rough seas ahead was Republican Rep. Nicole Malliotakis. She serves on the congressional Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation subcommittee and wrote Adams in January, just days after he was sworn in as mayor, urging him to swiftly settle a new labor agreement.

“These unresolved issues come at the expense of our mariners and commuters alike, all of which rely on our Staten Island Ferry services to sustain their livelihoods,” she wrote. “As our new mayor, it is vital you begin work to remedy these issues and ensure our [Staten Island Ferry] mariners receive the contract they deserve.”

Asked by THE CITY if the congressmember ever received a response from the Mayor’s Office, a spokesperson said that “other than confirming receipt, no.”

Council Labor Committee chair Carmen de la Rosa (D-Manhattan) told THE CITY on Friday afternoon that she was in talks with the Council’s Staten Island delegation and had reached out to Ydanis Rodríguez, the DOT commissioner, but the two had not yet spoken.

Of the mayor’s decision to supplement Wednesday’s rush-hour and overnight service with the non-union NYC Ferry, she said: “While I understand the logistical chaos that this may have presented, it was the wrong move.”

“My position as Labor chair is that these workers must be operating under the rubric of a fair contract that takes into account the amount of work that goes into running the system.”

Tight Ships

During the two-week period of service reductions last month, Rexha, the MEBA secretary-treasurer, has said the contract dispute coupled with a national maritime labor shortage has led to profound attrition problems for the service.

A spokesperson for the city Department of Transportation pointed to strict crewing levels mandated by the U.S. Coast Guard, noting: “every vessel must be staffed by one captain and one assistant captain, in addition to specific staffing levels for mates, deckhands, chief marine engineer and marine engineer, and marine oiler positions. For the safety of passengers and crew, we cannot and do not run boats without proper staffing levels.”

Any one “critical absence” forces a vessel to be grounded, the statement said: “ALL positions must be filled for a vessel to go into passenger service.”

“The union has and will make every attempt to work retroactively with what the city has offered but believes to maintain a safe and efficient ferry going forward they will have to address the disparity with the industry,” Rexha said in a statement on Friday.

This week, THE CITY reported that nearly one in five crew members had either retired or left for work elsewhere, and few of those positions had been filled, according to the union. 

Due to the attrition issues, many captains and mates work six to seven times a week for up to 12-hour shifts, Rexha said. 

Savino, a former chair of the state senate’s labor committee, pointed to the profound challenges facing the administration and the industry.

“Everyone’s trying to kind of get up to speed on what’s the outstanding issues, how do we solve the problem, how do you get to the table. But the short term problem is the contract. The long term problem is, how do you stabilize this occupation?,” she said. “And how do you begin to plan for recruiting and retaining people in an agency or a subdivision of this agency for a population that depends upon this service?”

She said that even though the contract directly affects only around 100 workers, “to the people of Staten Island, it’s incredibly important.”