If City Council eliminates collective bargaining for members of six non-public safety municipal unions Tuesday, the end will mark a new beginning for 574 employees and the officials who must decide how to replace the structure organized labor once provided.
"If council is going to do this, we'll have our work cut out for us and we need to get going sooner rather than later," said Controller Pat Roller, who last week suggested council agree to participate in the creation of an employee benefit group that would guide the city and its affected workers through the transition.
The No. 1 challenge could be the need to replace salaries established through bargaining with salaries placed on a more traditional "grid" in which similar positions receive similar pay based on salaries paid in similar circumstances in similar cities. Non-union employees' compensation is determined that way now, but establishing a grid for formerly union positions will take time and expertise, Roller said.
Waggoner Irwin Scheele & Associates, the Muncie consulting firm that reviewed the city's job classifications in 2007, is expected to help, but Roller said the job could take up to five months -- time in which the administration of Mayor Tom Henry and council will also be working on the 2015 budget. Not having salaries for more than 500 employees could complicate things, Roller said.
Short-term, affected workers' salaries will not be affected, although some work rules established through collective bargaining could be. City Attorney Carol Helton said those rules will be reviewed to determine which can be eliminated and which must be maintained under existing laws or agreements.
In fact, said Councilman John Crawford, R-at large, who championed the end of bargaining, the affected workers were already promised a 2 percent raise this year but have not yet received it because contracts had not been ratified. Even if bargaining ends, he said, that money will be paid.
"If we win the war (over bargaining), I don't want to lose the peace," said Crawford, pledging to work with the administration to make certain the new system works as well as possible for employees and citizens alike.
That 2007 study, Roller said, indicated that the city's union positions appeared to be near average, contrary to some council members' contention that collective bargaining produces above-market wages. "The point of bringing it up last week was that I wanted council to have the best information," Roller said.
Should council end bargaining, Helton said the administration this week will send affected employees information intended to reassure them about the future. One change they would notice immediately is that the city would no longer deduct union dues from their paychecks.
As council members have noted, that doesn't mean unions can't continue to exist, only that they can't bargain on behalf of their members. But if they can't, if the structure that has existed for better or worse for 40 years goes away, what replaces it?
The residents of Fort Wayne and the workers who serve them deserve an answer to that question as soon as possible. Council and the administration must put aside their differences on this issue and provide one. Some kind of merit pay would be a good start.