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City Gets Workers’ Attention Proposal To End Collective Bargaining Brings Employees Out In Force

More than 100 city workers and a former mayor jammed into City Hall on Monday to fight for collective bargaining rights.

But in the end, the General Services Committee - composed of half of the City Council - called for a new committee to reconsider the city’s collective bargaining ordinance.

If the full City Council agrees, representatives from the Lake City Employees Association, the Coeur d’Alene Police Officers Association and the council will form a committee to talk about revamping the 1982 ordinance. That ordinance allows employees to form associations and bargain for benefits. The study group could recommend strengthening employees’ negotiating rights, leaving them the same or repealing them.

The General Services Committee’s recommendation Monday is not binding. At its April 7 meeting, the City Council could choose to eliminate employees’ bargaining rights. State law mandates collective bargaining for firefighters.

Throughout Monday’s meeting - so crowded that the audience spilled from the council chambers into the halls - General Services Committee members denied that they want to repeal the unions’ right to exist. Instead, the council is concerned with the cost of negotiations and troubled that collective bargaining results aren’t binding, they said.

They pointed to last summer’s rocky talks with the Lake City Employees Association and the police association as examples. Police officers still are working without a contract.

“If we are spending the time, energy and resources and it’s not binding, what’s the point?” asked Councilman Chris Copstead. “If we had wanted to wipe it out, we would have.”

Added Councilman Ron Edinger, “We wanted your input - what we are doing tonight.”

But a city press release, meeting agenda and memo to employees all said the city was thinking about getting rid of collective bargaining, not modifying it, said Bill Keenan, of the American Federation of State, County and City Employees which represents some city workers.

“This is the most important sentence: ‘The council intends to discuss the repeal of the ordinance,”’ Keenan quoted from a memo to city employees.

More than 15 city employees also testified against repealing the ordinance and questioned the alleged problems with the law.

The Lake City Employees Association were ready to declare negotiations at an impasse last summer, President Paula Payne conceded. But in the end, the city and the employees hammered out a new contract with just 12 hours of talks.

“The rank and file are very confused and disheartened with the proposal to repeal ordinance 1752,” Payne said. “We don’t believe 12 hours is excessive to negotiate.”

Collective bargaining gives employees the feeling they have a partnership with city officials. “We feel if the ordinance is dissolved, the partnership will be irrevocably broken,” Payne said.

Bitter feelings from last summer’s attempt by the City Council to cut employee sick leave, vacation time and overtime pay laced the often acerbic comments that employees delivered to the council. In recent years, the council also has adopted a harsh, demanding, negotiating position that has eroded trust, they said.

“We’ve had good, open negotiations for years,” employee Denny Stewart said. “We’ve always kind of met in the middle of the road.”

The results of repealing collective bargaining will be costly because employees will leave and taxpayers will have to spend handsomely to train new workers, others warned. “If you don’t think people are going to be leaving, you need to do a new survey,” said Ron Clark, a Police Department supervisor.

The city has talked about its concern with employee morale after a survey last year found it to be fairly low, Hal Morehead said. It has spent all kinds of time and money trying to improve the situation but the potential repeal of collective bargaining, “turns around and slams the whole thing back down.”

Councilmen Copstead and Edinger finally voted to recommend the City Council form the committee to come up with changes. Councilwoman Sue Servick dissented, saying there are too many unknowns.

Jim Fromm, who was mayor when the collective bargaining ordinance was passed, urged the council to “leave it alone. It’s worked well for 15 years - please don’t throw it out.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo


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