Stand aside, Wisconsin: Derby is now the front line in the battle over public employee unions.
Amid difficult negotiations with its police force and with firefighters recently deciding to form their own union, the City Council is considering stripping both groups — and all other city employees — of the right to collective bargaining.
But police and firefighters aren’t backing down. Last week, about 100 people — many of them in uniform — packed the council chamber for a public hearing on the issue. The council delayed a decision until a member who is ill returns to the bench.
State law allows local government bodies to decide whether their employees can unionize and bargain as a group. The Derby Council voted “yes” to unions 25 years ago, and the issue now before the current council is whether to reconsider that decision.
City Manager Kathy Sexton brought the option to the council with a list of reasons why she thinks it would be a good idea.
“To some extent there is an ‘us versus them’ climate” surrounding relations between the unions and management, she said. Further, “there’s continuous pressure on the council to enhance pay for specific groups (union employees), which then evolves into pressure from other groups.”
The union process also is costly for the city because it takes the city attorney, the police chief and other managers out of their regular jobs for lengthy negotiating sessions. Plus there are costs for mediation when negotiations fail, she said.
In lieu of unions, Sexton is proposing to establish less formal employee councils that would meet quarterly to share concerns with management.
Steve Bukaty, a longtime attorney for the Fraternal Order of Police, debated Sexton’s conclusions at the council meeting.
Rather than being adversaries with the city that employs them, “The majority of the people in this room today would risk their lives at the drop of a hat for you, your citizens and your property,” Bukaty said in a video record of the meeting. “Union is not a four-letter word. … It’s a system that works.”
He said the cost argument is flawed because the city would pay its attorney and other negotiators anyway, and the cost of mediation, when necessary, is borne by the state.
He also said Sexton’s idea for employee councils has been tried and failed.
“Advisory councils are viewed as puppets of management,” he said.
“I know of two cities that have employee councils right now, Leavenworth and Salina. Morale in the police department is terrible, the pay is terrible, and the turnover is terrible.”
Five votes needed
For a long time, the issue of unions was largely moot in Derby.
Shortly after the council voted to allow unions in 1987, employees formed a unit of the Service Employees International Union. That unit was decertified in 1994 and there were no unions active in bargaining with the city until about 2005, when the Fraternal Order of Police became the bargaining agent for Derby’s officers.
The city and police have had two three-year contracts so far and are engaged in bargaining for a third. Negotiations have been under way since March, Sexton said.
Last month, firefighters informed the city that they had voted to unionize and that the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 4888 would be their bargaining agent.
The combination of extended negotiations with police and the decision by firefighters to unionize “brought it to the front burner,” Sexton said.
Derby would need five votes to drop its union, and only six people were available to vote last week: five council members plus Mayor Dion Avello. He ordinarily only votes to break ties, but he said state law requires him to vote in this instance.
Council member Mark Staats is a former police union president and has recused himself on the issue. The council also has an opening because it has not replaced Heath Horyna, who resigned recently to take a job in Topeka.
Another member, Jim Craig, is recovering from surgery but may be back for the Nov. 27 meeting. A vote on unions has been tentatively scheduled for that date, but it could be pushed back to the Dec. 11 meeting if Craig is still unavailable, Sexton said.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Avello urged the council to settle the union vote with seven members rather than wait for Horyna’s replacement, saying it would be unfair to a new council member to have to rule on the issue without having been present for the ongoing debate.
Council members are quiet on the issue. At last week’s meeting, City Attorney Phil Alexander advised council members not to make any public statements for or against the union vote until they had heard the whole debate.
None of the council members who spoke indicated a preference for anything other than delaying the vote.
Sexton said it is unlikely that the council will reopen the public hearing on the matter, but residents who still want to be heard can speak for five minutes during the public comments portion of the upcoming meetings.
Public vs. private sector
Public employees’ union rights are regulated by a law called PEERA: the Kansas Public Employer-Employee Relations Act.
Under the provisions of the act, employees are free to form any associations they want. But if they want those groups to collectively bargain for wages, benefits or other working conditions, they need the permission of the governing body.
But even when permission is granted, the next-to-last line in the act gives municipalities an out if they decide they no longer want to negotiate with unions: “Once an election has been made to bring the public employer under the provisions of this act it continues in effect unless rescinded by a majority vote of all members of the governing body.”
It’s a sharp contrast with laws affecting unions in the private sector, said Joseph Mastrosimone, a professor who teaches labor law at Washburn University in Topeka. Mastrosimone said that in private business, only the workers themselves can elect to decertify a union, and management doesn’t get a vote.
Because their jobs are vital to public safety, public employees are generally prohibited from going on strike, one of the private-sector unions’ most potent weapons, he said.
But Mastrosimone said the equation may not be as one-sided as the statute seems to indicate. A municipality that gets rid of its unions could face pushback from its employees and political consequences down the road.
While contract negotiations can be contentious, breaking the unions would probably spur more bad feelings because “it’s changing the basic relationship between employer and employee,” Mastrosimone said.
Also, Mastrosimone noted that even if the council does vote to strip the unions of bargaining power, under PEERA, the change won’t take effect for more than a year. That’s a lot of time for police and firefighters to organize an effort to persuade existing council members to change their minds – or campaign to change the council, he said.
“That (political process) could sort of balance the scale a little bit” and offset some of the council’s unchallengeable authority to dismiss the unions, Mastrosimone said.
Mastrosimone said he sees Derby’s effort to drop its unions as an extension of “what we saw a couple of years ago in Wisconsin.”
There, Republicans took control of the statehouse in 2010 and, led by Gov. Scott Walker, stripped public employee unions of most of their collective bargaining rights. That touched off months of angry protests and recall attempts, and touched off the nationwide “Occupy” movement.
Walker survived a recall attempt, essentially upholding his antiunion law. Democrats briefly took the majority in the state Senate but then lost it back in the Nov. 6 general election.
Statewide, motivated Democrats took a hotly contested U.S. Senate seat and propelled President Obama to victory in Wisconsin, even though Republican candidate Mitt Romney chose one of the state’s representatives, Paul Ryan, as his running mate.
There’s no clear answer on how the politics might work out in Derby. The city tends to consistently vote conservative and Republican, which would appear to favor the anti-union side.
But it’s also historically a bedroom community for union members working in Wichita aircraft factories, who may side with the police and fire unions.
Mastrosimone said he doesn’t envy Derby City Council members.
“It’s the classic case of, ‘You can do it, but should you do it?’ ” he said.