March 3, 2016
By Steven Wishnia

New York, NY – The city’s about 180 environmental police officers are a little-known but crucial part of its workforce: They guard its water supply, its reservoirs and filtration plants. And in January, they won one of the largest raises city workers have received in the last decade: They will get a 26% salary increase over the next seven years.

The man who negotiated that deal for the Law Enforcement Employees Benevolent Association was labor lawyer Stuart Salles, who has been representing unions for more than 35 years. One reason the environmental officers got such a good deal, he says, was that they were classified as civilian employees until 2012, and the city agreed they should be brought closer to parity with other uniformed-service workers. Another is the relationships he’s built up over his decades of practice.
“Name, reputation, experience, longevity, and the respect that goes along with that,” he says, in a conference room in his offices near City Hall. “You’ve got to treat each other fairly, knowing the parameters of what the other party really needs and wants.” City Labor Commissioner Robert Linn agreed that the environmental officers deserved to be paid more, and LEEBA head Kenneth Wynder was willing to have them work 25 minutes longer each shift.

Salles, who grew up “pretty poor” in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, has been working since he was 12. After graduating from Brooklyn Law School, he started working for the Civil Service Retired Employees Association in 1972, mentored by its president, Herbert Bauch. He “put me on the map,” Salles says.

He’s been running his own firm since 1984, representing exclusively public-employee unions. The eight staff attorneys handle tasks like arbitration, disciplinary procedures, wills, and divorces for members, while Salles specializes in disability pensions. He files more than 150 claims a year, representing clients from the initial reviews of their medical records to their interviews with the medical boards that will rule on them.

To win these claims, he explains, you have to prove two things: That the worker is unable to work, and that their disability is work-related. Police and firefighters can get three-fourths of their salary in those cases, while teachers can get two-thirds. If their disability is not work-related, city employees can get an “ordinary” pension of one-third their salary if they have at least 10 years on the job. “We do a lot of that also,” he says.

Contract negotiations are a more intermittent part of his work, coming in bursts every few years. Over the years, he says, “it’s become more difficult to achieve the numbers in salary and benefits.” With money tighter for the city, it’s no longer common for workers to get annual raises of 5% or 6%. In the most recent round of contracts, he notes, city workers got raises of 10%-11% spread over seven years.

“Back when I started, we were getting that in two years,” he says.

“I do a lot of pro bono work,” he adds. He’s counsel for four branches of the Columbia Association, the Italian-American ethnic society for city police, firefighters, transit workers, and Taxi and Limousine Commission employees.

“I’m grateful and thankful to my parents and to God to be able to be where I am today,” he says. “As long as I have good health and I love what I’m doing, I have no intention of retiring.”