ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

Our view: Voters cast disapproval over city's contract talks

Among the candidates who fell short in Tuesday's election were incumbent Mayor Herb Bergson, who ran on a platform of getting tough with the city's largest union in the current contract talks, and City Councilor Greg Gilbert, who ran on union sup...

Among the candidates who fell short in Tuesday's election were incumbent Mayor Herb Bergson, who ran on a platform of getting tough with the city's largest union in the current contract talks, and City Councilor Greg Gilbert, who ran on union support. Had conventional wisdom been correct, either one of them would have done better.

It wasn't, and both lost. That should be a signal that voters are less than pleased with the bickering at the bargaining table.

The contract with American Federation of State, County and Municipal Workers is a crucial part of solving the city's $300 million-plus retiree health care problem. Both sides say they agree on wages and pay increases, and they don't appear to be too far off on substituting the retiree benefits with a city payment into employees' health savings accounts.

The sticking point, says Bergson, is a union demand so ridiculous that the public would be outraged if only he could say what it was, which he can't because of confidentiality rules (Our View, "'It' is close enough for city and union to strike a deal," Aug. 26).

Though the mayor won't say, sources from both sides of the table told the News Tribune editorial page staff "it" involves overtime and staffing requirements, the bottom line being the union would like more overtime and employees on work crews and the city would like less.

ADVERTISEMENT

Supporting that is a bargaining crib sheet stamped "confidential" obtained by the editorial board. It lists as bones of contention the minimum hours for standby assignments (the city wants them capped at 16, the union wants 32), seasonal jobs and a city insistence that "when an assignment requires a crew to work overtime, they will be given the first right to it." The union wants overtime "by strict seniority but employees will indicate if they want to be offered overtime [which isn't guaranteed] and will notify the employer no later than 9:30 a.m. Monday of each week."

Apparently, the confidentiality rules allow negotiators to comment on issues so long as they aren't the ones bringing them up. So, AFSCME negotiator Ken Loeffler-Kemp was asked, wouldn't it save money -- maybe even the millions of dollars Bergson hinted at -- if a pothole crew already in the field worked overtime to fix a few craters instead of calling in a more senior team?

"No, not even close," Loeffler-Kemp said. "The union has offered a proposal that would actually reduce the hours."

Bergson was unavailable, but chief administrative aide John Hall disputed that, saying a real-life example is a broken water main for which "trying to replace the crew of four people would involve four hours of clerical work," as well as the costs to bring in the senior workers. Likewise, changing the standby rule could mean saving 2,500 hours yearly on work that's no longer needed because of technological improvements.

If this sounds like a he-said, he-said, it should be one reasonable people can hammer out now that the distractions of the mayoral race are over. But the minutiae aside, the crib sheet reveals a potential savings that neither side offered: City employees who elect single health care coverage will continue to have 100 percent of their premiums paid by the city. Do you know anyone getting 100 percent paid health care? With 543 employees receiving a $557 benefit per month, a more typical 20 percent employee contribution would yield a $725,000 annual savings.

Would the union want to go down that road? No, but the public would like to see some give on an issue everyone can relate to. Did the city even suggest it?

"No, we've never proposed it," Hall said, calling the benefit a "tradition."

Unfortunately, it's probably too late to change that, but if the city and the union have any better ideas when they meet today, now is the time to present them. The voterscertainly have had enough.

What To Read Next
The system crashed earlier this month, grounding flights across the U.S.