By Al Fortier
IBEW Local 1245 members at the City of Alameda ratified a tentative agreement for a one-year contract extension on March 21. The vote was 21-1.
The one-year extension provides for 100% employer-paid medical coverage in the Kaiser and Blue Shield health plans. Union negotiating committee members Mark Regan and Fernando Morales were assisted in bargaining by Assistant Business Manager Ray Thomas and Business Representative Al Fortier.
When bargaining began with the City of Alameda on Oct. 7 of last year, the union’s initial proposals reflected the members’ interest in maintaining medical benefits, improving general wages, and gaining additional increases in salary through educational and training incentives. IBEW members in Alameda had not received a general wage increase since 2008; however, during the first meeting with the City, Interim City Manager Anne Marie Gallant told the negotiating teams that “sentiment toward public sector was poor, and that the PERS pension is unpopular with citizens.” She also said that even though she moved quickly to cut 10% of payroll over a year and a half ago, “going forward the prognosis doesn’t look good.”
In recent years, negotiations with the City have been a drawn out, protracted ordeal that was frustrating for Local 1245 negotiators and members. This time around, lengthy negotiations would not only have been frustrating, but costly. Half of our members would have experienced out-of-pocket expenses of up to $200 dollars per month to cover rising medical premiums if the contract expired without negotiated increases in coverage. The union’s past experience with the City’s negotiating team convinced us that if things were not done differently, these negotiations could drag on for more than a year.
The original contract was set to expire on Dec. 18, 2010.
Hoping for a Game-Changer
The union eyed the Nov. 2 election with hopes of it being a game changer.
Public sector negotiations have become increasingly political during these recessionary times. Increasingly, cities have looked to unions for concessions. Or they have laid workers off as a means of balancing the budget. Labor’s voice was getting drowned out or ignored by fiscal conservatives sounding the alarm of impending financial doom.
IBEW 1245 representatives interviewed candidates seeking endorsements. Mayoral candidate Marie Gilmore and City Council candidates Lena Tam and Rob Bonta respected labor’s opinion and pledged to work with unions. IBEW 1245 support was instrumental in securing endorsements for these candidates at the Alameda Central Labor Council.
During the election campaign, our members phone banked at the Labor Council and at Gilmore’s campaign headquarters. We also precinct walked for our endorsed candidates.
Meanwhile, back at the table, negotiations were slowed by the uncertainty of the City elections. On Election Day, IBEW 1245 and the City met for the second time.
The City negotiating team proposed to delete our current overtime provisions and replace them with Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) regulations, which do not provide for overtime pay until after you’ve worked 40 hours in a week.
The City also proposed sweeping changes to callback procedures, eliminating existing provisions for standby, and language that requires employees to respond to emergency callouts or face disciplinary action.
We responded that the FLSA proposal was unacceptable to our members and counter-productive to achieving emergency response. Eventually we offered to work with them on the callout procedures in an Ad-Hoc committee.
IBEW 1245’s lead negotiator, Ray Thomas, presented wage comparison studies with surrounding areas showing that our journeymen were paid approximately 12% below average. He also pointed out that our members received inferior health and welfare benefits compared to Public Safety employees. The latter argument carried all the more weight because Alameda Municipal Power, the municipality that our members work for, is an “enterprise fund” that transfers millions of dollars to the City of Alameda’s general fund. These huge transfers, said Thomas, “are paying for superior benefits for Police and Fire”.
Negotiations Hinged on Election
The City could not, at this time, respond to any of our economic proposals. With polls closing in hours, City negotiators were playing it pretty close to the vest, knowing full well that the course of negotiations could hinge on the election results. We also had our fingers crossed, feeling that a victory by all three endorsed candidates was our best chance at getting a fair agreement. With our contract set to expire on Dec. 18, we were running out of time.
At stake for our members were escalating costs for medical coverage.
That night, thanks to the huge effort of labor, all three labor-endorsed candidates won. All those months of phone banking, precinct walking and encouraging members to get involved in the political process paid off.
These candidates had said they believed in giving labor a seat at the table, and now it was time to see if they would match their campaign rhetoric with action.
The election left the City negotiating team without direction or authority. The new council was not going to be sworn in until Dec. 21. At our Nov. 17 meeting we asked the City to extend the contract for three months to allow the City team to get direction from the City’s new leaders. We suggested the bargaining relationship would be damaged if the extension was not granted.
On Dec. 21, the City Council approved a contract extension for IBEW 1245, including fully-paid medical, until March 26, 2011. On Dec. 28, the newly-sworn City Council, by a 3-2 vote, placed the Interim-City Manager and the City Attorney on paid administrative leave. The Interim City Manager had been aggressively cutting spending, ordering layoffs and cutting benefits. The extension gave us breathing room to negotiate.
The new city council represented a more level playing field for labor negotiations, but the City’s poor finances still loomed large. Under normal circumstances, they suggested, the City would be more apt to address our inequities. But given the financial state of the City, they were determined not to make any proposals on wages, health and welfare.
We had already agreed to address FLSA and callout procedure language in an Ad-Hoc committee. But without economic direction, the City negotiating team was again unable to respond to our other proposals.
The conversation again turned to talk of an extension, but this time for a year. The extension would give the City more time to deal with its negotiations with police and fire. City Negotiator Jory suggested an extension could be on the table in exchange for restructuring medical. We suggested that picking up a share of medical would be conditional on getting a wage increase. But increases didn’t fly with the City.
Stalemated at the table, we set up a meeting with Mayor Gilmore.
During the election she had pledged to take an active role in communicating with the unions in the City. During the meeting we had an honest discussion about the City finances. She recognized that IBEW 1245 members were valued workers for Alameda Municipal Power. We shared with Mayor Gilmore our wage equity studies. We also told her that the City has violated the ground rules of our negotiations by not responding to our financial proposals. And third, that Alameda Municipal Power is transferring excessive sums of money to the General Fund to support the other employees with benefits that are superior to ours.
We concluded the meeting with a discussion on the possibility of a contract extension.
On March 10, one week after meeting with the Mayor, the City negotiator presented us with the proposal for a one-year contract extension. Although a one-year contract extension may not seem that glamorous, our members had been looking at the prospect of paying for rising medical costs. Given the City’s financial situation, maintaining our medical coverage seemed like a victory to us, and left us in a better position for bargaining with the City in the future.
We often tell members it’s important to be involved in the democratic process, and to vote for candidates who respect labor. Our just-concluded negotiations with the City of Alameda proved the point beyond any doubt.
Al Fortier is Business Representative, IBEW Local 1245