The Dos and Don'ts of Dealing With an Impasse

Jan. 13 - The county and its ten unions have been negotiating now for about five months on contracts that reduce substantially the payroll of the county's workforce.

About half of the unions are under contract, and the rest are about 75% in agreement.

That was the status quo last Thursday, when, under the collective bargaining laws, the parties (meaning the mayor on one side and the unions on the other) brought to the commission what is called an "impasse" or stalemate in negotiations, meaning in this case that the parties were deadlocked on one issue, but in agreement on the bulk of the agreement.

In the case of the PBA (Police Benevolent Association), the remaining issue was whether the county would force a union that represents almost 7,000 police and corrections officers to accept an additional 5% salary cut (on top of the prior year's 5% cut and the state-imposed 3% cut for pension contribution) to help defray the cost of health-care insurance. In simple math terms, the PBA was being asked to impose on its members, at all levels, a 13% reduction in compensation over the short span of 18 months.

That was the bad news.

The good news was that the union had accepted a total of $56 million in concessions, when compared to the prior year's contract. And that agreement had been ratified (signed, sealed and delivered) by the union members in an overwhelmingly favorable vote of the membership.

We were separated from wholesale agreement (and the all-important harmony that is so crucial in labor negotiations -- particularly in difficult economic times and particularly as regards the public safety employees) by a mere 18 million dollars, in an operating budget of $4.4 billion.

That is not much more than one-third of 1 percent of our operating budget.

We agonized over the decision, with the administration saying it could not yield one inch and the union saying that the administration had failed to look for savings and efficiencies in all kinds of other areas, including the fraudulent filing of homestead tax applications. Acting as the body charged by law to resolve the impasse, we took the side of the PBA. In effect, we instructed the mayor to make the cuts in other areas of the budget.

What happened next was a lesson in how not to solve an impasse.

For some reason, Mayor Gimenez felt compelled to attack the motives of the commission, using terms like "disgusting" and "irresponsible."

The mayor followed that by threatening to veto the commission vote; this strategem is of doubtful legal validity, since the county commission is charged by law to resolve the impasse by simple majority. It really makes no sense for one of the parties to a collective bargaining agreement, once they have declared an impasse and left to the commission to rule for one or the other, to then be able to overturn the decision of the body charged by law with resolving the impasse.

In the meantime, the transport workers union, whose leaders had reached agreement with the administration, failed to ratify that agreement. They will now -- understandably -- want to be exempted at the very least from the imposition of a 5% reduction in salary to pay for health insurance that they have always received gratis.

It is really not a tough nut to crack. Looking at it in perspective, we have managed to reduce taxes in the county back to 2009 levels; we have managed to reduce the budget by over 400 million dollars and to obtain employee concessions for sixty percent of that reduction, or about $240 million, minus only about $60 million in cuts that would create a financial hardship for many employees whose compensation has already been reduced by 8% in the last 18 months.

As one member of the commission, I have submitted memoranda showing how the PBA can be spared the final 5% reductions and how the county, in the long run, can save about 10% of its entire budget by serious streamlining measures, including sale of unneeded facilities and capping compensation at $150,000/year.

Now the mayor is saying he will the commission decision. However, using a mayoral veto of doubtful legality to override commission action at this stage is self-defeating. The commission will simply reply in kind and override the mayor.

Therefore, it behooves all of us to ratchet down the rhetoric, stop questioning motives, and simply apply ourselves to the task of finding efficiencies that will complete the process of balancing the budget, reducing taxes, and distributing fairly the pain that comes from imposing some discipline on a process that clearly got out of hand over the last two decades.

Let's get down to work and finish a job that has been essentially well done up to now by all sides.