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Posted on Tue. Aug. 12, 2014 - 12:01 am EDT

COLUMN

Bargaining debate: Full of sound and fury, but signifying little but politics so far

City committee -- minus Republicans -- working to fill void left by unions

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City Council’s efforts to eliminate collective bargaining for non-public safety city employees dominated the headlines for weeks, promising everything from a bonanza for taxpayers to financial doom for the affected workers.

With the possible exception of some political intrigue, however, the affect to date has been so minimal that even a prominent union boss is hard-pressed to sound alarmed.

“There have been a few changes, nothing major,” said Lloyd Osborne, business agent for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 399, who was a fixture at the often-heated council meetings that ultimately eliminated bargaining for all but police officers and firefighters by a party-line vote.

Mayor Tom Henry responded to council’s action by appointing a nine-member committee charged with filling the void left by the demise of collective bargaining. But as it began to compare existing policies for non-union employees with those in effect under collective bargaining, committee members likewise found few major areas of concern.

“We’d done a good job (previously) of making many of the policies similar, such as on bereavement (leave), so we didn’t find the need to make many major changes in those areas,” said committee member and city attorney Carol Helton.

To be sure, the committee still has work to do. Member and Deputy Mayor Karl Bandemer said salaries must be established for positions previously covered by collective bargaining, and grievance procedures must also be reviewed. And because the work could take months to complete, creation of next year’s budget will to some degree be based on an educated guess.

But the fact remains that, at least for now, the real-world impact of council’s vote has not lived up – or down -- to expectations.

Politically, however, the issue continues to prove as interesting as might be expected from a decision supported by six council members and opposed by a Democratic mayor and three-member council minority.

Henry’s committee, for example, gives no indication of bipartisanship. In addition to Bandemer and Helton, its members include city Controller Pat Roller, City Utilities Executive Director Kumar Menon, Board of Works Director Bob Kennedy, Parks Director Al Moll, former Democratic City Councilman Tim Pape, International Association of Machinists Business Agent Tony Wickersham and Scott Bell, a water pollution control maintenance employee.

“I’m happy the mayor formed the committee, but I would like it to be bipartisan,” said Councilman Tom Smith, R-1st.

County GOP Chairman Steve Shine, of course, just last month suggested that council Republicans take steps to minimize the potential political downside of their votes by, among other things, establishing an independent grievance board.

“(Shine’s) ideas weren’t new. They were old news. I don’t know why he elected to put his oar in the water,” Bandemer said.

That last point was purely rhetorical. Shine’s motives for wanting to manage the aftermath of council’s vote by making GOP council members part of the solution really isn’t that much different from Henry’s decision to manage the aftermath with a committee devoid of GOP council members or other Republican officials. There are, clearly, votes to be won and lost here, and it makes sense for both parties to minimize the damage and maximize the benefits.

What might make less sense is the administration’s apparent decision to exclude Osborne from the committee. Osborne, whose union represented employees in the Street Department and at the water filtration and sewage treatment plants, said he had been nominated to the committee by representatives of the affected unions but was bypassed in favor of Wickersham.

Osborne believes Wickersham will do a “wonderful job. But if (the administration) asks us for a representative and then rejects it, it concerns me,” Osborne said.

Osborne said he might have been excluded because he spoke with Shine before the GOP chairman sent his suggestions to Republican council members – a letter suggesting that Osborne supported Shine’s recommendations.

On the other hand, Osborne has been mentioned as a challenger for Smith in next year’s council race – which, if true, would legitimately exclude his membership on the committee.

“Have I thought about it? Yes. But I haven’t made up my mind,” Osborne said.

Bandemer, however, said Wichersham was selected before Osborne was nominated by the unions.

I have always contended that good policy is good politics. Both parties will be able to appeal to their base by publicizing their opposition to or support of public collective bargaining. But city employees – and the public as a whole – would be best served by producing a fair and efficient alternative to the system council has just eliminated. Bipartisan statesmanship on this issue has been non-existent to date, but that can best be accomplished by both sides working together and sharing the credit for something that, if done right, should be better than what it replaced.

kleininger@news-sentinel.com


This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.


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