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Derby council votes to strip public employees of right to unionize

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2012, at 8:16 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2012, at 10:46 p.m.

Two weeks after officials in Derby heard residents and city workers weigh the pros and cons of keeping public-employee unions, the Derby City Council on Tuesday voted to strip public workers of their right to collectively bargain.

Prior to the 5-2 vote in front of a crowd of police officers and firefighters – many in uniform – several Derby residents and others who support unions pleaded with the council to continue operating under the Kansas Public Employer-Employee Relations Act, which gives public workers the opportunity to unionize if a governing body says they can.

The act, under which the city has allowed employee unions since 1987, has been at the forefront of discussion at the council’s bimonthly meetings since late October, weeks after local firefighters announced they decided to organize under the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 4888 and use the organization as their bargaining agent.

Derby police Sgt. Ken Grommet, who spoke in favor of keeping bargaining rights during the public forum, called the vote disappointing but said he expects workers to push forward.

He said he is not covered by the union contract because he is in a supervisory role.

“This isn’t ground we haven’t traveled before. We’re going to keep doing our jobs because we are professionals,” he said.

The change will take effect Jan. 1. Under the state law, employees retain their collective bargaining rights for a full year if a governing body chooses to no longer negotiate with unions.

Until then, City Manager Kathy Sexton said, the city will continue to bargain with the Fraternal Order of Police on behalf of police officers and will negotiate with firefighters after their local union chapter is recognized by the state.

In lieu of unions, Sexton suggested forming employee advisory boards, an idea that won unanimous council support Tuesday. The boards would meet quarterly so employees could share concerns and grievances with management, she said. The council is expected to begin the process of forming the boards early next year.

Sexton said she expects city employees’ performance and their services to residents to continue at existing levels, even though their relationship with the city may be strained for a while.

“I think the firefighters and the police here are professionals and they love Derby and they love their jobs,” Sexton said.

As they are locked in extended contract negotiations with the city’s only other unionized unit, the police department, Sexton advised the council in October to consider whether allowing employee unions was still in the city’s best interest.

Negotiations, Sexton has told the council, take time and are expensive because they take workers out of their regular jobs and require legal counsel. She also has expressed concern over the cost of mediation when negotiations fail and that unions’ pressure on the council to enhance pay for their members encourages other groups to seek similar benefits.

The council heard public comments Nov. 13 but tabled making a decision until a later meeting. Residents and public workers continued their pleas to keep collective bargaining in place Tuesday night.

“I feel for the firemen and the police department. I know that they don’t have the everyday education on their own to go out and bargain,” said Derby resident Barbara Kelley, one of seven speakers who addressed the council. “ … They don’t have the time to do the research. That’s why they want one person to go out there and do that.”

Kathy Petersen, a Derby resident who heads a union representing Spirit AeroSystems workers, told the council that collective bargaining creates “labor peace” and gives workers security in their wages and benefits.

“We have a faith and a trust that they will respond promptly,” she said of police officers and firefighters. “We need to show them that we have their backs.”

Council members Randy White and Vaughn Nun voted to keep collective bargaining. Nun told the crowd that voting to take away collecting bargaining was premature. He suggested that the city engage in negotiations with firefighters before opting out.

Others, like council member Jim Craig, called the decision a policy issue rather than a union issue.

“How many of you like your jobs?” he asked the crowd Tuesday.

Several in uniform raised their hands.

“All of you are responsible civil servants because I know what it takes to wear the shield, wear the patch,” he said. “And with that, it makes it very hard to not protect you in every way that we can. But there is a time for equality” and treating all public workers the same, he said.

Firefighters say while they are disappointed with the decision, their local union won’t dissolve.

“We’re still going to be here,” said Carson Chatwell, a Derby firefighter and president of Local 4888. “We just have to figure out what we can and can’t do.”

Reach Amy Renee Leiker at 316-268-6644 or aleiker@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @amyreneeleiker.

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