Special report: Contracts with city union workers have tense past

Published 10:02 am Friday, January 11, 2013

Local United Auto Workers stunned city officials and the Austin City Council when more than 25 union members came to the last council meeting to show their frustrations with the bargaining process between the UAW and the city.

UAW members have worked under an expired contract for more than two years, and a visit by a state mediator on Jan. 2 couldn’t break the gridlock between the two sides. Yet discussions are far more complicated than city officials refusing contract demands, and both sides hope a resolution will take place soon.

Negotiations sour

UAW worker contracts expired at the end of December 2010, the last in a three-year contract cycle. The local UAW technically has three bargaining units in the city, representing Park & Recreation workers, Street and Sewer Department workers, and Wastewater Treatment Plant workers. According to city officials, there are nine Parks & Recreation employees, 16 Street department employees, six Sewer department employees, and 11 wastewater plant employees under the UAW contracts, or 42 of the city’s 134 or so full-time positions. Though each unit has to negotiate its own contract, UAW workers negotiate contracts together.

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And UAW workers were together when they opened negotiations in early November 2010. Yet negotiators soon grew tense, as bargaining came to a standstill within three months.

Bargaining units met six times between Nov. 1, 2010 and Feb. 7, 2011, with the city refusing all of the UAW’s demands, according to Bell. Though there isn’t an average amount of time UAW workers count on to negotiate contracts — Bell said some contracts have taken two days, others have taken two weeks — the latest round of negotiations were “out of the blue,” a marked departure from what UAW negotiators thought would happen.

“You can usually tell where they’re headed,” said Greg Bell, a UAW Park & Rec worker and negotiation team member. “The contract before this was a pretty easy contract … no hassle, no nothing.”

City officials and city council members have repeatedly said over the past few days they will not debate the UAW contract’s merits in public, in accordance with state and federal data practice laws.

“This is a principal adhered to by the vast majority of public employers as well as private employers,” said City Administrator Jim Hurm in an email to the Herald. “As tempting as it may be to publicly address Mr. Bell’s representations and accusations, we sincerely believe that to do so would seriously impair the labor contract bargaining process.”

Things ground to a halt until April 2011, when a state mediator came to town to settle various contract disputes. The state mediator came again in August 2011, and once more on Jan. 2 of this year.

Bell said the UAW let the matter drop for more than a year and a half because UAW negotiators didn’t believe the city would fairly negotiate a contract.

“We made zero progress,” Bell said.

The UAW bargaining team met with a mediator and city negotiators one more time, at the start of this month, hoping to resolve contract disputes. Bell said UAW negotiators had taken a majority of contract requests off the table and presented what the mediator in question allegedly called a “very fair” contract to the city.

After three and a half hours, the mediator told UAW negotiators the city still refused the requests and had asked for bi-weekly pay periods — to cut down on the city’s payroll costs — and additional language in the Street/Sewer and Wastewater Treatment Plant contracts dealing with call-ins and overtime, language which Bell said was largely favorable to the city.

That’s why UAW workers decided to approach the city council directly: To see if there was any way to break the stalemate.

At stake

The UAW’s demands have dwindled, but they are bargaining on several key requests, including a 32-cent increase for Parks & Rec equipment operators to match what Street/Sewer department equipment operators make. City officials say such an increase would cost the city about $2,664 per year — not including any additional overtime pay that might occur.

Street department employees want a life insurance policy increase, from $30,000 to $40,000.

“I think they’re the only ones in the city who don’t get $40,000,” Bell said.

UAW would also agree to the city’s contract request for no raises in 2011 and 2012, but a 1.5 percent increase in 2013, which would be about a $29,000 . Bell said the UAW tried to agree to the city’s terms — including the 1.5 percent increase and all other city requests except the call-in language changes — at the Jan. 2 mediation period. The city still refused the contract, according to Bell.

Those are among the top requests from the UAW, but the city has only two requests of its own: Switching to bi-weekly pay periods and the call-in language in the Street/Sewer and Wastewater Treatment Plant contracts, which some city officials have said were modeled on department supervisors’ requests.

Yet the city could feel repercussions from this contract negotiation. Several city officials, and even city council members, have said the city’s stance on contract bargaining is to keep contract increases and benefits in line with all other city departments.

That’s why the city hasn’t agreed to some of the UAW’s demands, such as the Park & Rec 32-cent pay adjustment. While Bell said Park & Rec machine operators must be certified for and use the same equipment as the Street department, some city officials say the adjustment may be unfair as Street workers uses some equipment more often than Park & Rec employees. Setting a precedent by accepting things like the 32-cent adjustment could open the door for other departments to request adjustments and added benefits for themselves based on what other workers get.

“If everybody else has settled for the same things … you’re going to undermine the negotiating process going forward,” Council Member Jeff Austin said Monday during the council’s work session meeting.

Moving forward

That hasn’t stopped tensions between the city and UAW workers, however. UAW negotiators are wary of the city’s negotiating tactics and charge the bargaining process is costing taxpayers thousands of dollars. In particular, Bell was concerned with the city hiring Cy Smythe, a former economics professor at the University of Minnesota who is now an independent labor consultant for Labor Relations Associates, Inc., a firm he founded more than two decades ago. The city’s bargaining unit hires Smythe for mediation and arbitration cases, and Smythe has worked with dozens of cities in Minnesota, including Mankato and Orono.

In addition, an arbitration case over an overtime situation with part-time workers has struck a chord with UAW workers. According to Bell, three part-time Park & Rec employees had worked past eight hours one day, which would qualify them for overtime. UAW employees contended three full-time employees should have been called in for the extra work, and filed a grievance for the amount two hours’ overtime pay would be for each employee.

The case went to arbitration, where the city ultimately won. Yet Bell said the state official who came for the case told UAW negotiators each arbitration case costs a city $10,000 to $15,000, which is why Bell criticized the city council for spending $15,000 on the case at last Monday’s meeting. However, it is unknown how much this arbitration case actually cost.

The public display of frustration appeared unique, as Hurm said Monday night he had never experienced a similar situation in his 10 years in Austin, though UAW workers say they’ve confronted the council in the past over stalled contract negotiations. UAW workers would like city council members or the mayor to get involved by observing future negotiation meetings, though council members voted in 2011 not to do so.

Still, Mayor Tom Stiehm said he recognized the need to do something to end the impasse.

“There’s a traditional atmosphere of mistrust between the city and the unions,” said Stiehm, who acted as a labor negotiator for the city’s police department for eight years.

City council members will discuss the UAW contract issues in a closed session meeting on Jan. 21, after the council’s public meeting and work session. Once a contract is drawn, it must be voted on by each of the UAW’s three bargaining units before coming to the council for approval.

Hurm said all other city bargaining units are under contract.