City contract talks hit a wall

Mediation is next, after sides can’t find accord on salaries or benefits.

Saying its members “feel they are not appreciated by the current administration,” the union representing most city workers this week declared a breakdown in talks for a new labor contract.

“These are great people who are out there doing the work for this city, and they are getting no respect right now,” said Mike Goddard, business representative for the International Association of Machinists Local 282, which represents about 100 city employees.

The administration, meanwhile, confirmed that the city has filed with the state to have the contract dispute go to mediation.

“I’m highly disappointed we’re at this stage,” City Administrator Mary Jo Briggs said.

The union took its complaints public this week, issuing a statement declaring that “tensions are running high at the city” and that “it appears that (administrators) are only concerned about themselves.”

Sticking points in the contract dispute include wages, job classifications and medical coverage.

Beyond a 1.9 percent cost-of-living adjustment, Goddard said employees are seeking a 3 percent general wage increase “to keep up with comparable cities.”

Due to the “mature workforce” at the city, he said, most employees have reached the top of their pay scales “and rely solely on the COLA” for raises.

Tied to Seattle’s Consumer Price Index, the 1.9 percent COLA is not at issue, said Briggs and Kathleen Grauman, the city human resources director.

But Grauman said the union began the negotiations by asking for an across-the-board wage increase of 31 percent. That flew in the face, she said, of a City Council directive that the city bargain with a goal of “sustainability” of staff and services, and keep salaries in line with the average of similar classifications in comparable cities around the region.

Citing soaring health care costs, Briggs acknowledged that the city has asked employees to consider making a contribution to their benefit package, which includes medical, dental, vision and other coverage.

The package is now funded 100 percent by the city, she said, while acknowledging that any change was bound to be unpopular.

“It’s pretty classic,” Briggs said. “The employees have a good benefit package. Anything that changes that and impacts their lives, that’s not something they want to accept.”

Goddard questioned the fairness of any proposal by which employees would lose ground.

“What (the city is) proposing will send these employees backward,” he said. “How can that even be right?”

Employees are also quite irked by recent pay increases – ranging from 10 to 16 percent – given by the City Council to department heads, after a survey showed they were underpaid compared to their peers in like-sized area cities.

“Believe me, the difference between what they’re earning and these people who actually do the work is getting pretty gross,” Goddard said.

Even the council is seeking a higher stipend, with Bill Knobloch and Jim Llewellyn recently saying that $600 per month is not sufficient recompense for the growing demands on public service. The city’s salary commission, an independent body, has been convened to address that issue.

So the rank and file is seeking a formal salary survey to determine their worth relative to other cities.

The last authoritative survey was in 1998, Goddard said, although Grauman countered that many positions have been upgraded case by case since that time.

Goddard questioned the good faith of the city’s bargaining team, comprised of Grauman, Public Works Director Randy Witt and a pair of labor relations consultants who have worked with the city since 1992.

Goddard suggested that the city’s bargaining position was outside the bounds set by the council, and said he had spoken with at least one unnamed council member who agreed.

He also wondered why Briggs had delegated the bargaining to others, when former administrator Lynn Nordby always sat at the table.

“Their position at the bargaining table is outrageous,” he said. “We have never had this problem until we had this new city administrator.”

The contract covers all employees except department heads, top level managers, the administrator and confidential secretaries.

The current contract expired on Dec. 31, leaving employees to work under the same terms until the dispute is settled. The sides met four or five times over the fall, and once this year before talks broke down. A new three-year agreement is the goal, both sides agreed.

Bainbridge Police are also unionized but are a separate bargining unit. Contract negotiations with that group, Grauman said, “are going very harmoniously.”

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