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VOL. 132 | NO. 29 | Thursday, February 9, 2017

City Unions Pan Proposed Impasse Changes

By Bill Dries

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Unions representing city of Memphis employees gave a rough reception Tuesday, Feb. 7, to a proposal to revamp the city’s impasse proceedings for stalled contract talks between the unions and the city administration.

Most Memphis City Council members say they won’t miss the lottery ball drawing for impasse committees if a proposal to change the process for resolving contract disputes is approved. But the city’s unions are opposed to the proposal.

(Daily News/Bill Dries)

The ordinance proposed by council member Kemp Conrad would change the much-amended procedure dating back to the aftermath of the 1978 police and fire strikes. Instead of having separate impasse committees decide each dispute, the proposal would create a single impasse committee for all disputes.

“Throwing all of the unions together for one thing is unfair,” said Deborah Godwin, an attorney speaking for the coalition of municipal unions on the matter. “Let’s do it right.”

She presented a letter from all of the employee groups expressing concern and opposition to the proposal as drafted.

Godwin pointed out that negotiations with the various city bargaining units is about to begin. The council’s vote on the first of three readings is scheduled for the Feb. 21 council meeting. Godwin said she expects it would apply to 2018 contract negotiations as a result.

Conrad defended his proposal, saying it will “streamline” the procedure and create a single council vote on economic items at the heart of an impasse as the council is deciding whether the city budget should be increased and by how much.

Unions at impasse are required to spell out how much their position would require amending the budget.

“In the new version, the entire process will be clearly related to the budget,” Conrad said, contrasting that with the current process that he described as producing “random and inconsistent results.”

“This all draws clearer lines,” he added.

Memphis Firefighters Association president Thomas Malone argued that linking the resolution of an impasse to amending the budget by a specific amount almost guarantees the unions won’t have a fair chance to prevail.

“This is not a negotiation. We’ve got nothing to fall back on,” he said. “All we’re asking for is fair and level.”

Council attorney Allan Wade countered that it gives unions something they haven’t had before – certainty that the impasse resolution the council approves matches what it does in the budget.

“We have always had this disagreement” about whether an action the impasse committee approves gets into the budget or not, Wade said, and the proposal is more efficient because it allows the council to “get to a bottom-line number.”

Malone was among the first members of the firefighters association when it was formed in the 1970s. He said the city administration’s approach to pay raises for firefighters from 1974 to 1978 was always “we will do you next year.” And the administration relied on the concept that public employees had no right to strike.

Firefighters and police officers went on strike in the summer of 1978, the year after tense contract negotiations. Police staged a work slowdown in 1977 during the contract talks.

The impasse process was part of a city charter amendment whose chief purpose was to declare that if any of the strikers did the same thing again they would be fired immediately. Then-Mayor Wyeth Chandler had sought to fire them in 1978, but their return was part of the settlement that ended the strikes.

The impasse process was billed as a way to avert a strike. And it has been amended numerous times in the last 38 years as council members have sought ways to keep both the unions and the city from gaming the system.

Malone said he could possibly accept some of the changes, but not the basic idea.

“We will go back to 1978,” he said.

Conrad termed his ordinance a “work in progress” and said he is willing to discuss amendments.

Under Conrad’s ordinance, one of the three council members making up the impasse committee would be selected by the unions, another selected by the administration and a third council member selected by the first two council members.

But unlike the original ordinance and later amendments, there would only be one impasse committee, not a different committee for every employees group that goes to impasse.

In recent years, council members have been selected for impasse committees by a drawing of lottery balls in a wire cage.

Most council members expressing an opinion Tuesday favored getting rid of the drawing.

“I didn’t like the one with the balls in the first place,” said council member Patrice Robinson. “That was ridiculous.”

It also sometimes resulted in the same council members winding up on numerous impasse committees.

“I was on six,” council chairman Berlin Boyd said. “That was just the luck of the draw.”

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