For many years, the New York City Board of Corrections has stood as an obstacle to the safety of the staff in the City’s jails. During the current Mayoral administration, the Board has passed rule after rule making a dangerous job nearly impossible. Correction Department staff have suffered exacerbation in both the number and severity of assaults by inmates directly due to well-intentioned but misguided reforms imposed by the Board. The Board is responsible for establishing “minimum standards” of care for inmates and, consequently, has the ability to draft rules that extensively tie the hands of Correction Officers in their efforts to quell jail violence.
The Board has repeatedly restricted the use of punitive segregation, which requires isolation of highly assaultive inmates. That restriction directly led to increased jail violence by inmates against not only law enforcement staff but against other inmates and civilian staff creating chaos in the city jail system. During 2019, the Board yet again published proposed rules to further restrict the use of this life-saving law enforcement tool. Koehler & Isaacs LLP took the matter to the New York City Board of Collective Bargaining claiming that the imposition of these rules constituted a safety threat to officers and that the failure to bargain with their union beforehand constituted an improper employment practice.
The City moved to dismiss the case arguing that the Board of Collective Bargaining had no jurisdiction over the Board of Correction. The Board of Collective Bargaining, however, rejected that argument. It noted that the fact that the New York City Department of Correction is obligated to comply with the Board of Correction’s rulemaking does not eliminate the Board of Collective Bargaining’s jurisdiction because “it is well established that a public employer has an obligation to bargain over matters within the scope of bargaining even if it is complying with a law, regulation, or directive that it did not promulgate.” As a result, the Board of Collective Bargaining clarified that rules promulgated by the Board of Correction are subject to the same improper practice analysis as any other public employer.
This clarification means the unions representing the over ten thousand members of the Department of Corrections’ staff can directly challenge Board of Correction rules at the Board of Collective Bargaining. For the uninitiated, the Board of Collective Bargaining is the local, New York City, version of the New York State Public Employment Relations Board or the National Labor Relations Board. As such, it is the only recourse for City employees’ and their unions’ claims of improper employer practices such as failing to bargain in good faith or interference, restraint, coercion or discrimination against employees in the exercise of their rights to form, join and participate in labor unions. A decision clarifying the Board of Collective Bargaining’s jurisdiction over rule-making bodies such as the Board of Correction is critical victory for public employees and their unions.
Howard Wien represented the union charging party in this matter.