May 15, 2007
Two more Austin unions might get the power to negotiate their pay, benefits and working conditions with city leaders.Legislation that would give “meet-and-confer” rights to Austin’s 200 emergency medical services employees has passed the state Senate and House and is headed for the governor’s desk. Negotiated contracts have proved lucrative for Austin’s police and firefighters’ unions, who have had negotiating rights for a decade.Additional legislation that the Austin City Council urged state lawmakers to carry would grant negotiating power to Austin’s 8,000 non-public-safety employees.Similar bills (sponsored by Rep. Dawnna Dukes and Sen. Kirk Watson) have passed in each chamber but have not been fully approved. Watson says he expects them to be.If the bills become law, workers will have to decide who will represent them at the bargaining table. For example, the union that represents Austin’s non-public-safety workers — the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees — would have to gather signatures from more than 50 percent of those workers. That could take several months, said the union’s Jack Kirfman.About 1,600 city employees belong to the union, he said.Houston’s non-public-safety workers were the first in Texas to win meet-and-confer rights, in 2005. They only recently began negotiations because of a dispute over which group would represent them, Kirfman said.The Austin City Council would have to agree to begin negotiations. The contracts for police and firefighters expire in fall 2008; if the legislation passes, the city might negotiate all workers’ contracts at the same time beginning later this year, said Kristen Vassallo, chief of staff.The city has not studied how much contracts with EMS and other city workers might cost. But it’s wrong to assume those workers would get dramatic pay raises, Council Member Lee Leffingwell said.”The pie is only so big,” he said. “The city’s resources are limited, and anything done has to be done within the limits of those resources.”The objective (of the legislation) was to put all city employees on the same footing,” he said.Non-public-safety employees’ pay has lagged behind that of their counterparts. A 2005 city analysis done at the American-Statesman’s request showed that a police officer’s wage rose 91 percent in 10 years, when adjusted for inflation, but a non-public-safety worker’s pay rose 8 percent.Public safety will take up 68 percent of the 2006-07 budget, and City Manager Toby Futrell has cited public safety costs as one reason for the $27.5 million budget shortfall she expects in 2008.Council Member Mike Martinez, a former president of the firefighters’ association, said negotiated contracts can help keep costs from spiraling.”You could sign long-term agreements that would provide stability for the budget process,” he said. “Right now, we have annual budget begging sessions.”If done in a disciplined way, the negotiations are about more than pay, Watson said; they allow employees and city leaders to develop policies to recruit and retain employees.The Austin Police Association negotiated several points unrelated to salaries, such as hiring, promotion and police oversight, President Jim Beck said.Issues such as disciplinary standards and predictability in career progression also top the list of things the workers union wants to discuss, Kirfman said.The EMS association wants to talk about having enough units and medics to respond to a growing number of calls, said Bryan Fitzpatrick of the association’s political action committee.EMS workers are eligible for 2 percent annual public-safety pay raises, on top of the 3.5 percent increases city workers can receive, he said.”Our medics are paid a decent wage. The city provides a good benefits package. The main focus is to make sure we can address working conditions,” he said.University of Texas economics professor Daniel Hamermesh said that negotiating power can give employees more of a voice but doesn’t necessarily translate into higher pay.”Being able to bargain does not mean you’ll succeed in getting more money,” he said.