Union fuels city dispute with unfair labor claim

After mediation failed between union and city officials, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW) is now taking a two-pronged attack to undo the effects of last year’s reorganization and subsequent layoff of union employees.

The union is moving the grievance it filed in mid-January forward to arbitration after union membership declined the agreement reached by union leadership and city officials last month. In addition, the union charged the city with an unfair labor practice complaint at the end of March, and will continue to pursue both actions.

“We are going forward through arbitration and now an unfair labor [complaint] because this is now how we feel about the city,” said Mike Goddard, the assistant directing business representative for District 160 of the IAMAW. “We do not trust this management at the city in any way. That was made very clear to me by union workers as we tried to get some kind of an agreement on this thing.”

The unfair labor complaint filed with the Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC) on March 25 alleges that city administration interfered with employee rights and refused to bargain in good faith with the union during the reorganization of city staff in the fall of 2010.

The union claims that the action resulted in nine employees being laid off without rehire, and 22 employees who were laid off and later rehired in a new position.

A preliminary ruling from PERC stated: “assuming for purposes of this preliminary ruling that all of the facts alleged in the complaint are true and provable that it appears that an unfair labor practice violation could be found.”

The city has until May 23 to respond to the complaint, and the case has been assigned to an examiner for a hearing. The examiner will work with the parties to find a settlement; absent a settlement the examiner will make a decision based on evidence presented through a hearing process.

PERC Executive Director Cathleen Callahan said the unfair labor complaint is different from a grievance because the latter is an alleged violation of a collective bargaining agreement through union contract.

An unfair labor violation is a violation of statute, in this case, the union is alleging the city violated the statute to bargain in good faith, and therefore is handled through a public commission.

Callahan said that PERC generally “uses make-whole remedies” to solve unfair labor complaints.

“A make-whole remedy would be, regardless of the violation, to return to everything to the status quo prior to the unfair labor practice,” said Callahan. “A remedy could be to reinstate a person to a former job and make whole for any loss of pay.”

Bauer said the grievance process could have a similar outcome. The grievance was filed in mid-January, and was initially denied by Bauer. The process continued onto a mediation phase where union leadership and city officials came to an agreement to settle the issue. But union members voted against the agreement.

As per contract right, the union and the city will mutually select an arbitrator who will work with the two parties to hold an informal judicial process to make a decision that is binding on both parties.

The arbitrator could choose a number of different avenues to resolve the matter, Bauer said, including ordering the city to restore employees to the positions they held before the fall reorganization and to restore laid off employees and compensate for pay. If the city is forced to reverse the impact of the reorganization that may jeopardize some of the employees in their current positions, who may lose their jobs once the old classifications are reinstated.

The process would put a major burden on city resources and staff, Bauer said, and though the council budgets for legal expenses every year, depending on how far this process goes, it could become very expensive.

“We were surprised given that union leadership was involved in mediating and agreed to the terms that we came up with; that didn’t get translated well to the membership,” said Bauer. “It was rather surprising given how involved they were in developing the settlement.”

Bauer said the union could choose to pursue one, or the other avenue of complaint, but if it goes through with both the grievance and unfair labor complaint it is taking more of the staff resources.

She said that the situation is not ideal because of the already limited resources at the city, which are the same resources available for staff support.

Under a confidentiality agreement between the two parties, specifics about the terms of the settlement could not be obtained.

Argument spans over months

The two entities have been at odds since October 2010 when the union objected to the city’s budget response to reorganize and subsequently lay off city employees. The city has dwindled down from 152 FTE city employees in 2007 to 111 in 2011, and used the reorganization to provide a new framework for city government with a smaller staff.

In July 2010, both the Police Guild and IAMAW agreed to roll over their contracts for one year through December 2011 to avoid the negotiation process, and both unions decided to forego their annual 2.5 percent cost-of-living increase for 2011.

In exchange, the city agreed not to furlough any union employees in 2011.

According to the document prepared by the Robblee Detwiler & Black law firm, employees were not warned about layoffs until Sept. 27 when Bauer notified 31 union employees that they were “at risk” of being permanently laid off on Dec. 31, 2010.

Over the course of the next several months the union repeatedly expressed their protest of the city’s plan, according to the complaint, but the city unilaterally posted new job descriptions and wage rates without the input or opportunity for input from the union.

In the last few days of December, nine city employees lost their jobs and 22 were laid off and rehired in a new position.

In her response to the union, Bauer said the city bargained in good faith, and that with very few Bainbridge employees with low seniority, it was inevitable that employees with years of experience would lose their jobs. With such a dramatic loss in employees, a restructuring was necessary, Bauer said.

For employees like engineer Dave Nelson, 63, that meant 19 years of service at the city were abruptly cut off when he was handed a slip on Dec. 21 and asked to leave the building.

Nelson said that after learning his classification would be eliminated, he applied and interviewed for four different jobs, and was turned down for each one.

He only wanted to stay at his job for another 24 to 36 months before retiring, and was shocked by the city’s decisions.

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