Process of Negotiating Union Contracts Research Paper

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Negotiating Union Contracts

Jonathan Zaun

The relationship between a city or municipality and its various employee groups is often defined by the collective bargaining process which is used to formulate and finalize contracts between the two parties. From police and other law enforcement officials to firefighters and courthouse workers, city employees are often bound by the terms of contracts which are negotiated by their respective union representatives. The negotiation process between municipalities and unions, which seemingly present a simple and pragmatic exercise in economic policy, can often devolve into a public display of political maneuvering based on the brokering of backroom deals. Ostensibly, city worker contract negotiations are the designated forum through which issues such as salary increases or decreases, pension planning and the allotment of benefits are discussed and agreed upon. Unions fight to expand the scope of their influence, securing gains for their members in the form of guaranteed pay tiers and generous retirement packages, by leveraging their previous performance and future value to the community. The governing body of a city, town or other municipality, on the other hand, must strive to balance their own fixed economies with the civic imperative of properly funding the various agencies which comprise the public service sector. Thus, the collective bargaining process between cities and their workforce is typically a contentious one, due in large part to both the complexity of the issues in question and to the sheer magnitude of the decisions made.

Of all the departments, committees and organizations which constitute the employment sector known as city employees, the police department is perhaps the most essential. Because the protection of its citizenry and the enforcement of its laws are utterly essential mechanisms for any thriving community, funding and operating a functional police force is a primary task for a municipal government. Kent Kammerer, leader of policy watchdog group the Seattle Neighborhood Coalition, stated succinctly in a recent op-ed piece, "We expect our elected leaders to become involved in policy decisions because, aside from the obvious life and death implications, the police department is the most costly aspect of our city government." As this astute observation clearly shows, the integral connection between the public and the police department charged with protecting them lends a heightened sense of urgency to contract negotiations. While the cold and calculated advice of accountants and financial planners may be eminently useful when determining wage scale formulas, the fundamentally visceral and intensely dangerous nature of police work demands additional consideration in terms of compensation. Police unions are well aware of this fact and they have become adept at translating public support for law enforcement into increased job security, secure retirement plans and other contractual benefits.

An examination of a standard contract between a city and its police union indicates a collective bargaining process which is steeped in legal technicalities and deliberations over the minutiae of wage scales, pension planning and promotion schedules. One such contract, the 2009 Agreement By and Between the City of Seattle and Seattle Police Management Association, is rife with procedural terminology affirming that the contract had been signed "for the purpose of setting forth the wages, hours and other conditions of employment for those employees for whom the Association is the exclusive bargaining representative" (Agreement 3). The details of the contract illustrate the complexity of the issues being negotiated. Performance-based pay is rejected in favor of the union standby known as longevity pay, and Appendix A.5 of the contract states that "Longevity premiums based upon the top pay step of the classification Police Lieutenant shall be added to salaries during the life of this Agreement." This clause is designed to incentivize loyalty to a particular police department by rewarding those members of the union who reach certain experience milestones. For example, when a Lieutenant in the Seattle Police Department achieves the completion of fifteen years of service, an automatic salary increase of 5% is triggered, while thirty years of service earns a 12% pay hike.

The concept of perpetually rising salaries for police officers, especially those in administrative roles late in their careers, inevitably arouses public indignation despite high approval ratings for law enforcement officials. At a time defined by national recession and an ailing economy, many cities are now being forced to address their own budget shortfalls by limiting or reducing salaries for police, firefighters and other city workers. Randy Clement, the mayor of Frederick, Maryland, recently pulled the step salary structure from the collective bargaining offer made by the city to its police union, an offer which was roundly rejected. The previous system, which mandated "step increases of 4%" which "occurred every year until an officer reached step 10, then every other year until an officer reached step 13, the maximum," was deemed to be untenable by Mayor Clement, who stated that he "cannot justify giving the officers a raise" which would cost the cash-strapped city $152,000. Standoffs like the one playing out in Frederick are occurring more frequently across the nation, as municipalities struggling with increased debt and shrinking revenues begin to scrutinize their budgets in search of bureaucratic waste and expendable expenditures.

Las Vegas, Nevada, an epicenter of the foreclosure crisis and an emblem of America's Great Recession, has also been compelled to alter, adjust, and in some instances, simply breach the contracts it has negotiated with police and city workers. A total of 83 "positions were slated for reduction in the fiscal 2012 budget approved May 17 by the City Council" and the city "could lay off more than 250 employees as it tries to plug a $30.3 million budget shortfall next year" (Takahashi 1). While Las Vegas stands to save $9.2 million by making the cuts, many observers view the city's actions as a violation of a "memorandum of agreement between the city and the union, approved by the City Council in December 2010" (Takahashi 1). This product of an emergency collective bargaining session between the city and its police union is a "tentative agreement" that "saved the jobs of 11 police officers and implemented a no-layoffs policy for 18 months in exchange for union concessions, which included forgoing pay increases and freezing sick leave and holiday work paybacks" (Takahashi 1). Many interested parties are concerned that this negotiation process is being played out with reckless disregard for public safety, as a significant portion of the city's police presence will be suddenly removed. City officials have tried to quell public disapproval by assuring citizens that "the final number of layoffs could be reduced if city and union leaders agree on additional union concessions" (Takahashi 2). For a police union which has surrendered more than $18 million, the result of three rounds of concessions since 2009, this proposal may simply be unacceptable. The situation in Las Vegas, while representing an extreme example, illustrates in stark terms the high stakes attached to the collective bargaining process between cities and their workforce.

A historical review of newspapers, city records and budget data reveals that collective bargaining between municipalities and workers has been a divisive issue for decades, with the contested issues remaining much the same today as they existed then. Cities witnessing their entire police going on strike was a regular occurrence in the 1970's, as the more socially active era produced city workers emboldened to pursue equality, pay increases and job security. New Orleans, Louisiana was crippled in the spring of 1979 by police strike which lasted for 16 days, while Philadelphia witnessed a similar 16-day strike consisting of all sectors of the municipal workforce, including firefighters, bus drivers and sanitation workers. In the case of the Philadelphia municipal employees strike, the contentious issue which fractured the relationship between the city and its various unions was the controversy surrounding a health and welfare fund. Mayor W. Wilson Goode…[continue]

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