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Agreement on the horizon in New York City union dispute

By Edward Krudy

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Negotiators for New York City and more than 100,000 teachers and school workers could agree on the outline for a deal to end a four-year contract dispute as soon as the end of April, a person with direct knowledge of the talks said.

Reaching a framework for a contract settlement with the United Federation of Teachers could open the door to a formal agreement by the end of the school year in late June, said the person, who declined to be identified because the negotiations are confidential.

The parties are considering a 9-year settlement, the person said, which would extend the contract until 2018, dating from when the prior one expired in late 2009.

Moreover, reaching a deal with the teachers union, among the largest representing city employees, could pave the way for a broad settlement before the end of the fiscal year with more than 151 city bargaining units over some $8 billion in back pay they are demanding.

A deal would also remove a major hurdle for the city's $70 billion budget and would stand as one of Mayor Bill de Blasio's first big accomplishments since taking office in January.

The thorny issue of retroactive pay has not been fully addressed and remains a wild card, with the city arguing it cannot afford full retroactive raises, the person said. But in a series of negotiating sessions in recent weeks both sides are cooperating and eager to get a deal done before the end of the school year in June.

"There's been progress, you haven't heard any screaming and yelling and the reason for that is you can read the tea leaves, people feel we're making progress," the person said. "I honestly think this will all be really clear in 30 days."

Spokesmen for the UFT and the mayor's office declined to comment on the timeline for the negotiations, citing the confidential nature of the talks.

To be sure, it is still unclear what an agreement would look like. Because of the fluid nature of the negotiations, the talks could still go awry, especially when it comes to tackling issue of money.

All the city's 300,000 public workers are currently operating without a contract. The city uses a system of pattern bargaining with its public sector unions in which the first deal reached is expected to serve as a blueprint for the others.

The city's chief labor negotiator Robert Linn is keen to get a deal done on contracts still outstanding from the last round of collective bargaining, of which the UFT's in the biggest, before moving on to tackle other contracts.

Arthur Cheliotes, president of the Communications Workers of America, which represents around 8,500 city workers, said an outline agreement with the UFT by around the end of April would likely give other unions enough time to reach broad agreement on financial terms before the end of the fiscal year.

"There would still have to be some discussion on the finer detail of unit agreements but broadly speaking the usual steps taken are broad parameters are established," said Cheliotes.

The city's top budget watchdog, Comptroller Scott Stringer, recently called on the parties to reach a deal before the start of the city's financial year.

T. Rowe Price, a major U.S. asset manager that runs a $400 million New York State bond fund, told Reuters in November that it had been holding off buying city debt until there was more clarity over the issue.

De Blasio, the city's first Democrat mayor in 20 years, has repeatedly said the city cannot afford to meet all the unions' demands but has not closed the door to some retroactive pay as long as it is accompanied by productivity savings and issues such as healthcare contributions are addressed.

The UFT says its members are owed two raises of 4 percent that other workers received during the 2008-2010 rounds of collective bargaining. Those raises alone would cost the city $3.5 billion.

(Reporting by Edward Krudy; Editing by Dan Burns and Tom Brown)

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