News from Patrick Flynn

Labor leaks

As many readers may know I returned to full-time employment earlier this year, which might help explain the relative dearth of recent blog posts.  Sorry about that.  But increased interaction with people generally less involved with the political process has the benefit of providing perspective one might not otherwise enjoy.  So I’ve appreciated my co-workers’ recent questions about the current kerfuffle between the Plumbers & Pipefitters union and the city.

For those who missed it, the union and the administration have been bargaining for roughly two years but didn’t reach full agreement.  Following the process dictated in municipal code they submitted their case to an arbitrator, who approved the items on which they’d tentatively agreed (TA’d), found for the city on a couple items and found for the union on the big item – wages.  Those findings required eight Assembly votes in order to be enacted but only achieved seven.  A strike vote was held and, with the union and municipal attorneys coordinating efforts, a judge issued a temporary restraining order requiring the employees to keep working while said judge decides what should happen next (most likely imposition of the arbitrator’s decision).  And, in an eleventh-hour effort, the Assembly has called a special meeting on September 7 to consider offering additional guidance to the administration.

It all amounts to dramatic political theater but, when viewed through an historic lens, doesn’t really amount to much – we’ve seen this serial before.  Anchorage’s brief municipal history includes several administrations promising to “get tough” with labor.  That philosophy generally manifests itself with “hard” negotiations, or none at all, that actually lead to a worse result for the city and this situation is a textbook case.  Here’s how:

  • Part of the matter where the arbitrator found for the union revolved around service recognition pay (SRP) – a percentage bump in compensation based upon one’s employment longevity.  This is a relic of the pipeline era when oil companies offered to hire virtually every able-bodied tradesperson in Alaska, at generous wages, to help construct the Trans Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS).  In an effort to hang on to their experienced employees local governments began offering SRP and the program has persisted for decades.  In recent years efforts have been made to eliminate SRP and, in many cases, replace it with pay for performance (PFP) wherein a similar percentage bump in pay is instead based on negotiated factors like training, safety and productivity.  Recognizing this trend, during negotiations the union offered to surrender SRP and work with the administration on a PFP plan.  The administration refused to discuss either, simply insisting that SRP go away.  The arbitrator said SRP stays.
  • The other part of the issue where the city lost was wages.  Two factors here: comparable pay and annual adjustments.  In both cases, despite previous instances where both have been successfully resolved, the administration declined to offer levels of compensation consistent with either market or Assembly direction.  Faced with a choice between the administration’s artificially low number and the union’s higher-than-the-Assembly-wants number, the arbitrator found for the union.

In short, it’s no wonder we lost at arbitration and won’t be a surprise if we lose again in court.  What’s more, I’m told there are a myriad of grievances filed by various municipal employees where the administration has declined to negotiate a reasonable settlement.  Those are likely headed to arbitration as well and historically the city has lost in similar situations.  Put another way, a “get tough” stance with the city’s represented employees often results in higher costs than working with them (and working with them does not mean capitulating to their every whim!).

But fear not, important achievements have been attained.  Those who stake their political allegiances with those who want to “get tough” on labor can now credibly say they’ve done just that, though they won’t mention the increased costs.  Meanwhile those who’ve pledged to stand with working men and women can similarly say they’ve lived up to their word.  And, of course, the fourth estate has fodder for its daily missives.

The only losers are those who desire efficient and effective local government, but that’s a small population generally ignored by politicians.



This contribution was made on Saturday, 03. September 2011 at 09:52 and was published under the category Fiscal matters. You can follow comments on this entry through the RSS-Feed.

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1 Comment

  1. Welcome back Patrick!

    Nice work explaining what has been going on with the Plumbers contract. So much of the public dialogue around this issue has been either about the merits of organized labor in general, and not about the business of running muni government and how to reach the compromise positions that are good for the employer and the employees.

    Comment: Peggy – 06. September 2011 @ 10:56 am

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