As everyone now knows, PLEA signed with the City on a new three-year contract that will carry us through the rest of 2016 and into 2019. Was this the best contract or a “win”? I don’t think it was the best contract and whether it’s a win or not depends on your perspective. From the perspective of not going backwards and taking any more concessions it was a huge win. From the perspective of getting previous concessions fully restored it was a big win. From the perspective of getting a raise on top of restoration of concessions it was definitely not a win. Despite your personal perspective, I believe it was the best we could achieve under current conditions. Full restoration of concessions over three years gets us out of the basement and back to ground level. Would we have all liked to have a raise on top of restoration of concessions? Absolutely. Did we fight for a raise? Again, absolutely. We went to arbitration in partnership with fire [same arbitrator, same attorney, and same expert witnesses]. We hired a pension expert and an expert on municipal finances to review the city’s books. We clearly put on a more compelling case than the City did as evidenced by the fact finder’s decision ruling in our favor. So much so that it was recommended we receive a raise in addition to full restoration of concessions. This brings two problems to light; the issue of advisory arbitration as opposed to binding arbitration and the need to have five votes on the City Council to get anything accomplished.
While a ratification vote of 110 to 10 in favor of ratifying the contract seems dismal (and it is), it reaffirms an old axiom in the labor world; silence is affirmation. What we have learned through years of experience at PLEA is that people usually don’t show up in droves unless they are upset about something. Many of us at PLEA read the low turnout as people being OK with the contract. I’m sure there could be other reasons; apathy, “it doesn’t matter anyway”, “there will be enough votes without mine”, etc.
We hear from officers that say they didn’t know there was a contract vote even though this has been the standard drill for decades. We do our best to get the word out via e-mail blast, Facebook and the PLEA website. Some accuse us of trying to pull a fast one by running a ratification vote through in a week. Not true. There are time constraints on the process and this is the way we have always done it.
Some officers complain about having to come to the office once every two years to vote on their contract. You know, the same ones that will take off of work early or come in on a day off to pick up a new cell phone. I’ll admit, coming in person to cast a ballot is a minor inconvenience but there is a good reason for the method. Every contract cycle we see people coming in to cast their ballot that often times have huge misconceptions about what they are voting on. Having in-person meetings allows us to thoroughly brief them on the contract and answer any questions prior to the casting of a ballot. Imagine having online voting and the possibility of having a contract voted down due to people voting based on what’s churning through the rumor mill as opposed to what the actual facts are. One example of this is many believing that Fire had somehow wrangled a raise in this current contract while we did not.
The fact that police and fire worked closely together during this contract cycle and the fact that all labor units held firm until the end sent a clear message to the City that the divide and conquer tactics they are so fond of using would not work this time. A three-year contract is something we have never done in the past and it was a new concept for us as well. We felt the least the city could do would be to give us a small raise in year three as a part of our willingness to go three years instead of the usual two. We pushed for the raise and the best we could get was a promise for a “re-opener” to discuss the possibility of a raise if there was a projected budget surplus in the third year.
The sad reality is that contract negotiations are, in many ways, a political process and as mentioned earlier, to get anything done requires having those five votes on the City Council. Unfortunately, we deal with council members who often provide a supportive message in one-on-one meetings, but often fall short when it’s time to vote.
Could we have rallied the troops and gone to Council to push for a raise? We could, but if the [Council] votes aren’t there, then it’s an exercise in frustration and all for naught. What you would have gotten was another contract imposed like in 2014 and the Council could have completely removed any possibility of a re-opener in year three.
I can tell you the PLEA team worked extremely hard for everyone and would have liked to have gotten a better deal just as much as you would. Despite our best efforts, there will always be those who aren’t going to be happy and always think we should have gotten more.
To illustrate the point, I will leave you with this; about eight years ago we negotiated the best contract in PLEA’s history and probably one of the best in the nation; 13.6% over two years. It was unheard of. Most of us would kill for a contract like that now. Despite this phenomenal contract, we still had some officers vote no because “it wasn’t enough.”