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City and employees come to terms on contract

But both the union and the council are dissatisfied with the new three-year pact.

Months of labor discord came to an end – officially, at least – as a divided City Council on Wednesday approved a new three-year contract with the city’s largest collective bargaining unit.

Even so, two council members said employees didn’t give enough ground in the contract, while a union representative predicted more turbulence ahead.

“In view of what we got bound up with by the tactics of this city’s administration, it’s the best we were going to get,” said Mike Goddard, business manager for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, District 160, Lodge 282.

“Do I think it’s fair in view of what they did for managers? No, I don’t think it’s a good contract.”

Goddard said the union, which represents about 100 city employees, is still rankled by significant raises given to City Hall’s upper managers last year, while rank-and-file workers were asked to “go backwards” against inflation.

Union members, who ratified the new contract a week ago, will receive annual cost-of-living adjustments tied to the Seattle Consumer Price Index. Across-the-board raises will be 1.9 percent in the first year and at least 2.5 percent in the third, capped at 4.5 percent.

But workers also agreed to move down to a second-tier benefits package and, beginning in 2006 will contribute $10 per month to the cost of their healthcare. That contribution will be $20 in 2007.

Cost-sharing for benefits was a sore spot throughout the negotiations. Under directives from the council, the city’s bargaining team worked to bring benefits costs in line with the average of comparable cities.

On Wednesday, council members Bill Knobloch and Nezam Tooloee said the contract didn’t go far enough to that end and voted against the labor agreement.

Tooloee cited administration figures that showed the city now pays $1,185 per employee per month for healthcare, compared to an average of $940 in comparable cities and $795 on Mercer Island.

Cost savings over the life of the new contract will not be significant, he said.

“We’ve all been very sensitive to being fair to staff,” Tooloee said. “I just don’t feel like we as a city have to apologize for the level of benefits that we offer or the benefits that we’ve asked people to consider.”

But Goddard blasted the council’s strategy of using benefits costs in other municipalities as a standard.

“The city has just plain said, ‘We think we’re paying you more than enough. If you don’t like it, go somewhere else,’” he said.

Contract negotiations began last fall but soured almost immediately, ending up in mediation.

Employees were angered by city Administrator Mary Jo Briggs’ decision to delegate negotiations to upper managers and labor-relations specialists, rather than sitting at the table herself.

At one point, employees circulated an unflattering “statement of no confidence” in Briggs to be submitted to council, but after it was leaked to the press, the document did not see the light of day.

Goddard said the document was never signed by a significant majority of the membership, and therefore did not represent the official view of the union.

He nonetheless criticized Briggs for submitting a guest column to the Review to argue the administration’s position, which he described as “badmouthing” the union while the dispute was in mediation.

“This is the kind of stuff she pulls,” Goddard said. “She said the union was putting out misinformation. We didn’t put out any information. We chose to go out and work to get a good contract, and every time we turned around, these folks were blindsiding us.”

Briggs said she is “glad to put this behind us. I’m looking forward to building more respectful approaches to problem solving.”

Councilman Jim Llewellyn also sounded a conciliatory note toward employees.

“Not only are they really nice people, but they’re incredibly dedicated and skilled and motivated, and they really have the best interest of the city at heart,” he said. “I support giving them the best contract we can.”

But the contract sparked disagreement even among council members who voted to ratify it. Bob Scales said the council must hold the line against any growth in the city organization.

“I want to give notice to the executive that I will be a staunch opponent of adding more staff,” he said. “You can’t come back and say, ‘Gosh, we’re so busy, we need more staff.’ We can’t afford it.”

Councilwoman Christine Rolfes said the council itself must control costs by not adding new programs in future budgets. With that, the council ratified the contract by a 5-2 vote.

“This has been an unpleasant experience for everyone involved,” Rolfes said, “and it’s nice to have it end.”

But that assessment may prove overly optimistic. Goddard said Friday he expects to file complaints soon over unspecified unfair labor practices by the city.

“You’ll see very shortly, I think, that the relationship between this bargaining unit and this wonderful management that they have is more than strained and stressed,” he said.

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