What the commissioners really want is for the unions to let them out of the deal the county signed two years ago when the both sides negotiated a three-year contract. And to get out of the deal, county officials want to ignore a primary rule of collective bargaining: To get something, you give something. The county doesn’t really have much to give, which puts them in a very poor bargaining position.
(By way of full disclosure, The Spokesman-Review news department employees have a union, and I’m a former union president who has negotiated several contracts with newspaper management, including some with raises and others with cuts.)
The main bone of contention between the county and its unions are what both sides call, somewhat incorrectly, COLAs.
A true cost-of-living adjustment is just that. If the cost of living goes up 10 percent, pay goes up 10 percent, and if it goes down 10 percent, pay goes down 10 percent. What the county and the unions really negotiated is a raise with a floor and a ceiling. If the cost of living went up any amount between 2.5 percent and 3.5 percent, pay would go up by that amount. If it went up more — 5 percent, 10 percent, 50 percent, pay would go up no more than 3.5 percent. If it went up 2 percent or 1 percent, or down 5 percent or 50 percent, pay would go up 2.5 percent.
When the county and the unions reached that agreement, the real estate market was on steroids, tax revenues were flowing in and the county was focused mainly on the upper limit of the raise. County workers agreed to pick up a bit more of their benefit costs, the county got predictable labor costs for three years and 3.5 percent was less than what some other government agencies were giving their unions.
Neither side thought about the floor, Gordon Smith, the staff representative for the Washington State Council of County and City Employees which represents many of the county workers.
“We thought we cut a good deal,” County Board Chairman Todd Mielke conceded last week.
When the recession hit, the county realized it was not such a good deal, and asked to re-open the contract to cancel the raises. The unions, not surprisingly, asked what the county would give them in return. County officials said they’d lay off fewer people.
Smith said the unions wanted to save as many jobs as possible. Because there are so many departments and offices, and professional specialties within those offices, the county’s unions are fairly balkanized, so there were many different suggestions. Many members wanted a one-year extension to the contract.
Mielke said with the economy still sliding and the state and federal government likely to cut their payments to counties, the county is reluctant to add a year on the contract. “In hindsight, we probably should have gone with a shorter contract” in 2008, he said.
Obviously, both sides are frustrated. Last week, from the bully pulpit of the meeting room, commissioners laid all the blame at the feet of the unions. Then they said something surprising – that if the unions changed their minds, changes could still be made by Dec. 31.
That was news to Smith who thought negotiations were over when the budget was approved last Tuesday. At midweek, he was trying to spread the word among the various union groups while waiting for a call from commissioners. Mielke, meanwhile, said the board was waiting to hear from the unions.
For a moment it looked like both sides would be singing Auld Lang Syne and waiting to hear from the other, but by Friday Smith said the two sides agreed to sit down this week for more talks. He wouldn’t say what was on the table, but added: “They have something in mind, and so do we. Each side is at least willing to talk.”