CityLaw Profile: Robert Linn – Respectful Discourse Paves the Way to Solutions

Robert Linn, Commissioner of the Office of Labor Relations.

Robert Linn, Commissioner of the Office of Labor Relations.

Mayor Bill de Blasio on December 31, 2013, appointed Robert Linn as the Commissioner of the Office of Labor Relations. Linn, a former Director of the Office of Labor Relations under Mayor Edward I. Koch, will lead the City’s team in one of the most important municipal labor negotiations in a generation.

Robert Linn was born and raised in Manhattan. He attended P.S. 6 in Manhattan and later the Ethical Cultural Fieldston School. Linn graduated from Haverford College, a small liberal arts college in Pennsylvania with a degree in Economics. In 1970, Linn enrolled in the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University to pursue his interest in working with government and public policy. Linn switched to law and graduated from the University of Chicago Law School in 1974.

At Chicago Law School, Linn focused his interest in economics, studying under Nobel Prize winning economist Ronald Coase who taught law and economic analysis, and Richard Posner, a leader in the field of law and economics. Linn worked for Judge Posner one summer during law school, and cites him as an important influence in his life. Linn returned to New York to work as a summer associate at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP in its labor department. Upon graduation, he returned to Skadden, Arps’s labor department where he worked with John Feerick, the former dean of Fordham law School, who Linn recalls as a terrific mentor.

Linn left Skadden, Arps for the New York City Law Department after meeting Allen Schwartz, Mayor Edward I. Koch’s first Corporation Counsel, through a friend from the Kennedy School. After six months at the Law Department, Linn began working for Basil Patterson, who was Mayor’s Koch’s Deputy Mayor for Labor Relations and Personnel. One year later Bruce McIver became head of labor relations, and Linn was appointed General Counsel to the Municipal Office of Labor Relations. Linn held that role for three years before becoming Director of the Office. In early 1989 mayor Koch appointed Linn as head of Department of Personnel where he began the process of merging Labor Relations and Personnel. Linn’s proudest accomplishment during the Koch Administration was handling labor agreements in a timely way and negotiating contracts that were fair to the workers and to the public.

After the Koch Administration, Linn worked for Hay Management Consultants where he developed a public consulting group. His clients included major cities, including Philadelphia, Washington D.C., and Chicago, as well as the New York City Police Officer’s Union. For the last twelve years Linn focused on the health care sector, working with the League of Voluntary Hospitals, an umbrella group that represents major New York City hospitals in their labor negotiations.

Linn’s return to the City as Commissioner of Labor Relations under the de Blasio Administration comes at a time when most, if not all, of the City municipal contracts have expired. There are 350,000 municipal workers whose labor contracts expired three years ago and have not been renewed. Of those workers, 150,000 have not received wage increases since 2008-2009. Linn said that one of the current challenges is that the previous administration did not reserve money in the budget to account for retroactive increases. The major negotiating challenge will be reaching a fair balance between economic demands and the limits of the City’s budget.

As the lead negotiator for the City, Linn will rely on his years of experience. According to Linn, collective bargaining issues are consistent, regardless of size. What does change, and what complicates the situation, is the amount of money that is involved, but the labor management dynamic stays the same. The past 24 years taught Linn that respectful discourse is necessary to achieving important solutions to issues in dispute. A good economic analysis is critical to finding solutions and a joint analysis, with labor and management, is the best way to reach fair solutions.

Linn recommends two books that have had a profound impact on his life and career: Strategy of Conflict, by Nobel Prize winner Thomas Shelling, and Getting to Yes, by members of the Harvard Negotiations Project. Linn believes that “these two books together can teach you as much as anyone can hope to learn about negotiations.”

At the announcement of his appointment of Linn as Commissioner, Mayor de Blasio said that “this may be the hardest assignment that anyone in the history labor relations has taken on.” Even though he is only three months on the job, Linn is cautiously optimistic about getting the labor contracts in New York City back on track.  Linn believes New York City can demonstrate public sector workers are respected and that collective bargaining can achieve fair solutions.  Linn’s goal for his office is timely completion of collective bargaining, with early negotiations and settlements before contracts expire.

By: Elizabeth Osley (Elizabeth is a City Law Fellow and a New York Law School Graduate, Class of 2013).

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