City sets the stage for union talks at two percent


by Chris Rogers

The city of Winona made a big move last week in its ongoing union negotiations. The City Council unanimously agreed to a give nonunion employees a two percent raise on Monday. The nonunion rate is sometimes used to set expectations for ongoing union negotiations. A two percent increase, which would be the largest raise since a 2.75 percent contract increase in 2009. As of last week, no unions had settled.

"What we're going to offer the [nonunion] people will set the bar," said former Mayor Jerry Miller during a 2011 labor negotiation strategy meeting. "It's a double-edged sword," commented labor negotiations attorney for the city, Brandon Fitzsimmons, at that meeting. "One, it sets the pattern, but on the other hand, unions are like, 'Oh we know we'll at least get [that much.]'"

City unions received no increases in 2010 and 2011 and 1.5 percent increase for 2012 and again in 2013.

"I don't think that two percent is unreasonable," said veteran council member Allyn Thurley when asked about the nonunion rates and union negotiations. "We'll see what the unions do with that and what they come back with." Thurley noted that, with a half-million dollars in renewed Local Government Aid (LGA) from the state, the city now has more resources than it did in the past.

Greg Olson is the president of the local American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the union for many city hall workers. He explained that the city offered his union a rate increase of less than two percent, to which the union made a counter offer of over two percent. City administrators and union representatives sat down for another round of negotiations last Friday, he said.

Olson explained that his union represents some of the lowest-earning employees at city hall, who are disproportionately affected by increases in employer contributions to health insurance when compared with their higher-earning colleagues. That, he said, was the main reason AFSCME was seeking an increase of over two percent.

On both sides of the table, people are trying to reach something that is "fair and equitable," Olson said. He continued, "I certainly don't think two percent is outrageous. Is it fair and equitable?" That is up for union members and city leaders to decide for themselves, he said.

For their part, city administrators were less willing to talk about negotiations. As a nonunion employee, City Manager Judy Bodway will receive the two percent raise. When asked prior to the council meeting about the rationale for the nonunion raises, Bodway said she would explain the decision prior to the council vote on Monday. No report was given prior to unanimous approval of the recommendation. When asked afterward why she did not explain the rationale for the nonunion raises, she said, "I changed my mind. I cannot talk about it. We're in the middle of negotiations with the unions."

When asked if the nonunion rates do, indeed, pertain to union negotiation strategy, she said, "It's all a part of the negotiations; I'm not going to talk about it." Bodway is involved in negotiating with unions on behalf of the city.

Another council member who has been through many cycles of union negotiations, George Borzyskowski, said he supported a two percent raise during closed sessions. "That's what I'm seeing in my place of business here. It's pretty much the standard increase," he said. "Before it was six, seven, eight, nine percent." He continued, "We have an excellent staff. They're certainly worthy of the two percent. I'd like to give them more, but we have a budget we'd like to follow."

For essential employees like police officers and firefighters, negotiations that fail to reach a settlement are then decided by labor law experts known as arbitrators, who examine city finances and ability to pay when awarding contracts.

In past negotiations, city officials expressed mixed feelings about the dangers and benefits of going into arbitration: on the one hand it keeps city officials for being blamed for approving raises, but arbitrators may award higher raises than city officials believe the city can afford.

Negotiations often take months; negotiations that go into arbitration can last longer than the contracts being negotiated.

The council met in closed session to discuss labor negotiation tactics this fall. Thurley acknowledged that the proposal for nonunion raises was not a surprise and it may have been discussed at those recent closed session meetings.


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