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VOL. 128 | NO. 74 | Tuesday, April 16, 2013

City Labor Talks Head to Impasse

By Bill Dries

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The city of Memphis and the Memphis Police Association are expected to declare Tuesday, April 16, that their contract talks are at an impasse, triggering a process in which the Memphis City Council settles the labor dispute.

The council is scheduled to select three of its own Tuesday to become the impasse committee that gets last best offers from both sides and then chooses one or the other.

Three council members are to be selected by a drawing of names at Tuesday’s council executive session. Before the 1:30 p.m. drawing, the council will meet privately with its attorney to discuss the impasse process.

Memphis Police Association President Mike Williams said the broad issue at stake in the impasse isn’t just a 4.6 percent pay cut police and all other city employees took in 2011.

The municipal unions took the city to court over the pay cut in a federal court case that is still pending

“Me personally, the police association, we are not going to bargain on the 4.6 percent. You can give it or not give it,” Williams said on the WKNO-TV program “Behind The Headlines. “We are more concerned about the benefits. They were talking about taking away vacation days, holidays, sick days, different things like that. That’s what we were more concerned about.”

The program is hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News and can be seen on Daily News Video at www.memphisdailynews.com.

City Council member Kemp Conrad, on the same program, argued that city employees have benefits that are out of line with benefits in the private sector. He also said the city has failed to live up to a long-term responsibility to adequately fund the pension fund by an additional $50 million each of the last three years.

“We did need to put in more,” Conrad said. “We balanced budgets with it and it’s not right. Workers are paying into a retirement system that makes unreal promises.”

Williams said the pension fund is healthy and has bounced back from the recession to the point that the city doesn’t need to consider such options as requiring employees to pay more as city employees agreed to do recently.

“I think our pension system is fine,” he said as he likened it to a mortgage payment. “The city has never really put what was required as far as the recommended contribution. … As long as this city is moving along you are never going to have to pay that balloon note.”

Conrad countered that the recommendation by actuaries should be taken more seriously and that city pensions and other benefits should be changed to reflect that.

“Either we can raise taxes by $50 million a year, we can reduce benefits or employees have to put in more. Those are the three options,” he said. “I think our tax rate as high as it is now is detrimental to the future growth of Memphis. … It might be a combination of the three.”

He also floated an offer to pay police officers more as a way to begin to change some benefits.

“If we had a deal that we were going to pay police officers 10 percent more next year and not the rest of the city employees, would you support that?” Conrad asked Williams.

“I’m not going to sit here and agree to anything on face value – for instance, just like when the city was talking about giving back the 4.6 percent but then they were talking about cutting our benefits,” Williams replied. “I would have to see the total package. I’m not disagreeing with you and I’m not saying I wouldn’t do that. I’m saying in the past … there has not been true transparency in our negotiations.”

The impasse process was established after the 1978 strike by Memphis police and Memphis firefighters and it has been amended and overhauled numerous times in the intervening years.

The council is considering another rewrite but has not yet begun three readings of the ordinance. The changes being discussed would more specifically define economic items that are in the power of an impasse committee to decide and they limit the city administration’s ability to work out memorandums on other contract items that have an economic impact.

Williams said it amounts to changing the rules as the impasse procedure comes to life again.

Conrad argued it is a way for the council to get a grasp on issues that affect the city’s bottom line.

“When city employees didn’t get raises every year … other things got negotiated,” he said. “Over 20 years it’s simply unsustainable.”

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