February 26, 2007
The City of Austin’s bargaining table could get much more crowded as the city’s largest group of employees asks the Legislature for a seat at that table.Unlike police officers and firefighters, most of Austin’s other workers do not have a right to negotiate with city officials over pay, benefits, working conditions and other issues.Several City Council members say that difference has led to a growing gap between the haves and the have-nots, prompting them to throw their weight behind state legislation that could affect about 74 percent of the city’s 9,300 full-time workers. All six members of the council reached on Monday said they backed a resolution on Thursday’s agenda to support the legislation, which has not yet been filed.A 2005 analysis showed that the wages of workers without bargaining rights lagged far behind their counterparts in public safety who had such rights over the previous decade. For instance, a police officer’s wages soared 91 percent over that decade, when adjusted for inflation. At the same time, a comparable nonsafety employee received an 8 percent increase.It is unfair for some employees to have the right to negotiate while others do not, said Council Member Lee Leffingwell, who is sponsoring the resolution with Council Members Mike Martinez and Sheryl Cole.But getting bargaining rights “is not a license to get whatever you want,” Leffingwell said, adding that the city will have to negotiate within its financial means.Contract negotiations have proved quite lucrative for police and firefighters, and some council members have fretted about the impact of the growing cost of public safety salaries on other city services. City budget estimates show public safety increases consuming about 90 percent of the new revenue this year.But Council Member Brewster McCracken, the most vocal of those critics, said giving all city workers negotiating rights does not mean that the city loses financial control.”We need to be fair to folks that work in the organization, and we have to be fair to the taxpayers too,” said McCracken, who supports the council resolution.The city has learned from its mistakes in past contracts and will incorporate those lessons in any negotiations to both control costs and serve the needs of employees, McCracken said.If enacted, the legislation would open the door for the bulk of city employees to get “meet and confer” rights, which police and other law enforcement workers already have, once an employee association collects petition signatures from more than half of the eligible workers.Emergency Medical Services employees are also seeking “meet and confer” rights but through a separate bill, said Bryan Fitzpatrick, who serves on the EMS employees’ association political action committee.Back in 2005, Houston’s workers were the first non-civil service city employees in the state to win such rights. They are about to sit down at the bargaining table for the first time, said Greg Powell, business manager for the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees local that represents both Houston and Austin employees.State law requires legislative approval for municipal bargaining rights. Union officials say that the measure has the support of the Austin delegation and that Rep. Dawnna Dukes has been asked to carry the bill in the House. However, Dukes’ office said she wouldn’t comment until after a bill is filed.Kirk Waston, a former Austin mayor, said he has agreed to carry the legislation in the Senate if the council endorses it.”My experience with meet-and-confer has been that, when both sides are disciplined about it, it brings benefits to the citizens,” Watson said.He said it can help the city attract and retain good employees while also helping management achieve its goals.”It’s more complex and sophisticated — when done right and done with discipline — than to simply say it will raise the cost” of municipal government, Watson said.