Contract negotiations between the city of Stillwater and a number of its employees—AFSCME Local 517 union members—have stalled and city workers are tired of it.
A number of city employees and union representatives gathered on the steps of City Hall before the Truth in Taxation hearing on Tuesday night to put pressure on the City Council in an attempt to get back to the bargaining table with the city administrator.
The protesters—holding signs that read “We Make Stillwater Happen” and “Fair Contract Now”—have been working without a contract since December 2011.
“The city has dragged its feet long enough in settling its union contracts,” a post on AFSCME Council 5’s website reads.
Stillwater City Administrator Larry Hansen said he spoke with AFSCME union representatives last week when they presented “a rather outrageous request” and wanted an answer right away.
“That’s not how I operate,” Hansen said. “There’s a process to this. You meet and negotiate. You don’t just throw something out there and demand it.”
Following that meeting, Hansen said he researched contracts public employees have with comparable cities, spoke with the city’s labor attorney and scheduled another meeting with union representatives to negotiate the contracts on Dec. 20.
Contention: Wages and Health Insurance
City workers are taking issue with the fact that they have not received a raise in four years while the cost of health insurance is on the rise.
"City negotiators continue to insist that workers must swallow a fourth straight year without a pay raise, but must also pay all increases in health insurance costs," the status update on AFSCME Council 5's Facebook reads.
In recent years, the city has cut about 25 percent of its work force due to reductions in state aid, Hansen said.
In 2013, the city will lose about $2 million in local aid. The city’s budget for the coming year is proposed to be about $11.5 million.
“It hasn’t been fun,” Hansen said. “Laying people off, not hiring and making people work harder isn’t fun for me, but it’s what we’ve had to do.”
Just as the city has to prepare an adequate budget in tough financial times, so do the families of city employees, said Jennifer Munt, AfSCME Counciil 5’s Public Affairs Director. Families are dealing with the same budget struggles the City Council was grappling with the other night.
“It is impossible for the city to have an accurate budget without knowing the labor costs,” Union Representative Brad Junker told the council just prior to the Truth in Taxation hearing. “Today, all but one of the city’s union contracts remain open.”
But Hansen, who negotiates contracts with six of the city’s eight unions, said that’s not exactly accurate.
The city has come to a settlement with the 49ers (Public Works) for 2012.
Four of the city’s unions—police (both patrol and sergeants unions), fire department and city department heads—are essential units and cannot strike.
Those contract negotiations go to arbitration, Hansen said. That’s a process that takes time and hasn’t happened yet.
AFSCME—which includes 17 city employees who work as building inspectors, city planners, engineers and administrative professionals—is the only union contract that has not been settled and has the ability to strike, Hansen said.
City employees enjoy the work they do, Junker told the council, and their jobs matter.
“The employees of this city—and the work we do—touch so many people in so many ways,” Junker said. “We are the face and the voice of the city. We help carry out the ordinances and the policies that have been set forth by the council.
“I ask that you urge management to promptly negotiate fair contracts for all city employees. “It’s the right thing to do. It’s the responsible thing to do for taxpayers.”
Hansen said he hopes the city and the unions come to a settlement.
“This is stressful for me, the city’s employees and the City Council,” Hansen said. “No one like this sort of thing, so I hope we can come to an agreement.”