City public services employees strike

It’s unknown when they’ll be back at work
By: Stephanie Dumm News Messenger Reporter
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Twenty-nine of Lincoln’s 37 public-services employees waited three hours at Tuesday’s City Council meeting before leaving the meeting to receive picket signs. Thirty-six of Lincoln’s public services employees went on strike at 6 a.m Wednesday and, as of press time Wednesday, continue to picket City Hall and the city’s corporation yard. The strike was in response to Tuesday’s City Council’s decision authorizing City Manager Jim Estep to implement a Last, Best and Final Offer for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 39, the city’s classified unit. A Last, Best and Final Offer is “the best offer the city could come up with and afford,” according to city of Lincoln public information officer Jill Thompson. Classified-unit employees work in the city’s parks and maintenance, streets, wastewater, solid waste, transit and maintenance shop departments, according to Local 39 Business Representative James Britton. Britton said the employees plan to strike “until we reach an agreement” and it’s unknown how long the strike could last. Changes to employee contracts that were approved by the one-year Last, Best and Final Offer include employees paying 10 percent out-of-pocket for their health care, paying eight percent of their CalPERS retirement and the freezing of merit increases for one year. Britton said the health-care change is what the classified employees did not agree to. The city included in the third year of the contract that the public services employees would have to pay 100 percent of any health-care rate increases. Steve Crouch, a district representative for Local 39, said the concessions in the Last, Best and Final Offer would mean a 10 percent cut in pay for employees. Crouch said employees make an average of $3,500 to $4,000 a month, which could mean a $350 to $400 cut in pay per month. “They live paycheck to paycheck now and they are one of the lowest-paid public-services sectors in the region,” Britton said, adding that the strike is “forced.” “Standing up and fighting for their paycheck is a forced act.” Thompson said the cost savings that would be realized from the Last, Best and Final Offer is $200,000 per year. During Tuesday night’s City Council meeting, Larry Menthe, the city’s representative at the bargaining table, said the city has met with Local 39’s representatives for four months. “We’ve entered into 50 tentative agreements, and at that time, we had done comprehensive agreements,” Menthe said. Menthe said the union presented a response proposal, which the city agreed to. “It went again out to the (classified group) membership and was voted down,” Menthe said. “What that did for us was create for us an impasse situation, where we put together a Last, Best and Final Offer.” Britton said the classified group had agreed to the 10 percent out of pocket for health care until the city included in the contract that the employees would “pick up 100 percent of premium increases in the third year.” “Having to pay 100 percent of an unknown number was difficult (for the group),” Britton said. Menthe and Estep said they were willing to go back to the table to negotiate with the group. “Larry Menthe is contacting them to offer dates to meet,” Estep said Tuesday night. Estep said the public services employee group “needs to give us an offer they will actually agree to.” “We had a tentative agreement on everything and they voted it down,” Estep said. “They’ve never given us an offer they will agree to so we don’t know what they want.” Britton said he received a phone call from Menthe on Wednesday morning, offering to meet next Monday through Thursday. For the 2008-2009 fiscal year, Britton said, Local 39 agreed to take 12 furlough days, no merit increases and no matching-of-deferred compensation. The cost savings for the city from those concessions was $190,000, according to Britton. “In 2010, when the city wanted concessions for CalPERS contributions and no cost-of-living adjustments, the group said no,” Britton said. “As a result, six people got laid off. That’s how the city got the concessions.” Those six layoffs resulted in a cost savings of $270,000 for the city, according to Britton. Thompson verified that five classified employees were laid off last year, and one chose to take early retirement, which amounts to six positions. Brian Button, a wastewater employee and steward for the group who is on the negotiating team, called the concessions imposed by the city “a hardship.” “Most employees won’t be able to get by,” Button said. He added that most members “think the concessions imposed are political and punitive.” “Punitive because the group wouldn’t agree to concessions last year,” Britton said in response to Button’s comment. Britton said the public services employees on strike cannot be fired for striking but the employees will not get paid for the time they are on strike. “If they were striking over salary, they could be permanently replaced,” Britton said. The union passed out a “Why We Are Here” flier during Tuesday night’s City Council meeting. One reason cited for the employees attending Tuesday’s meeting was that the pay cuts would not help the city’s General Fund. “A vast majority of our positions are not funded by the General Fund and therefore cuts to our pay and benefits do not provide any relief to the General Fund Budget deficit,” the flier stated. “We work in enterprise funded departments that are precluded by proposition 218 from transferring funds to the General Fund to help balance it.” Thompson said eight of the 37 classified positions are funded by the General Fund. “We never had the intent of taking enterprise funding and putting them in the General Fund,” Thompson said. The flier also said the city has “engaged in unfair bargaining conduct at the table by proposing regressive proposals.” Thompson said the labor group gave a “confusing message” when they verbally agreed to a final proposal and then voted against it. The flier also states that “the city of Lincoln is grossly mismanaged and any cuts to our pay and benefits will only exasperate a failing economy and hurt the businesses in our community.” “While financially cuts are always painful, without additonal revenue coming into the city, there seems to be little other solutions for cost savings other than labor,” Thompson said. “The five other labor groups did it (made concessions) last year.” What the strike means to the city The News Messenger asked Estep what the strike means to him. “It means I don’t believe they understand the economic impact across the board,” Estep said. “It’s concessions because the citizens pay for everything, not just the General Fund. They pay rates for enterprise funds.” The city’s public services director Mark Miller said the City Council “did their best to maintain fiscal solvency” by approving the Last, Best and Final Offer. “I feel sorry for the cuts that are necessary in this economy, especially for public services,” Miller said. Mayor Paul Joiner was asked by The News Messenger what it meant to him that the public services employees are striking. “I’m dissapointed that we’ve reached the point of impasse. We had a tentative agreement on two proposals, one the city’s and one Local 39’s, and we were hopeful we had come to a solution acceptable on both sides,” Joiner said. “Unfortunately, the membership of Local 39 classified voted no on each.” “With no additional proposal from them, we’re left knowing what they don’t want but we remain in the dark about what they do want,” Joiner said. The News Messenger asked Lincoln Police Chief Paul Shelgren if extra police coverage would be needed because of the strike and he said no. “They are entitled to do a peaceful demonstration to get their message out,” Shelgren said. “I’m not anticipating any problems at all.” A strike had been expected, according to Estep. He said city staff worked on a contingency plan the past few weeks. “We will provide the services any way that’s necessary,” Estep said. Two contract employees “are on contingency” for each service affected by the strike, according to Thompson. Those services are streets, parks and facilities, airport, fleet, transit, solid waste, and wastewater. “If we need them, we can call upon them,” Thompson said. Garbage will be picked up today but Thompson said there could be delays of up to a day while the contractors learn the trash routes. “Leave your garbage out. It will get picked up,” Thompson said.