AFSCME Local 444 negotiations assesment 1997

While it is still relatively fresh in our collective memory it is important that we try to draw some conclusions from the recent contract negotiations.  If anyone had any doubts about the District's intentions in the beginning, they should have been dispelled after the District refused to pay for Local 444's sixth negotiating team member despite doing so  for Local 21's--a union one third our size. 

Local 444 negotiators took a strong stand on this issue and we are aware that some members thought we were being "petty" or simply overly confrontational.  However, it would have been a mistake to begin  negotiations  with a concession like this--an issue that was of no real concern to the District--it would have sent them  the wrong message.  Negotiations may give the outward appearance of some sort of academic exercise between gentlemen or women  but in reality it is a struggle over real things for us, wages, food, housing, education of our kids.
EBMUD  was seeking some major concessions including drastic restrictions on union activity.  The intent was to make it almost impossible for stewards and officers to represent the membership.  They also wanted to introduce a merit pay system where employees wage raises were dependent on their performance appraisal;  given them by their supervisors of course.  The District also held fast to its argument that the CPI (consumer price index) was not a valid measure of inflation and was therefore irrelevant.  Their intent was to eliminate the COLA provision in our contract and cited many examples of other unions where the leadership had willingly given up COLA  clauses as a measure of wage increase.  Local 444 negotiators argued consistently that COLA is not a wage raise and that any raise begins when there is an offer over and above the cost of living for our area.  For the majority of the negotiations which went from February to August 1997 the District  held to this position seeking wage reductions as their figures were below the rate of inflation.

As a representative of public sector workers and to counter the increased effects of the so-called Welfare Reform Bill  Local 444 not only demanded, but made an issue of the need for increased hiring at union wages and benefits as well as a reduction in the work week.  One of the Union's key demands was for fifty new union jobs.  Despite growing and having upwards of $50 million in reserves EBMUD had planned no net increase in hiring over the next five years.  In fact it is clear that at SD1 they are preparing for reductions in force.  Several of our departments such as grounds, fleet maintenance and janitorial have seen increases in workloads with no subsequent hiring.  Contracting out is also a serious threat to these departments.  The employer refused to discuss the issue of jobs at the negotiating table stating that "jobs is not a union issue."  The union however refused let the issue die.  Some of Local 444s members work in areas of very high unemployment.  Our members have been robbed, beaten, and assaulted at times.  The issue of jobs was crucial to any success Local 444 expected to have in negotiations  as our wages and benefits are excellent compared to most workers in the communities we serve and this fact would have been used against us by our employer.  Apart from this, it should be the role of the labor movement to fight for increases in services and jobs in working class communities--not only is this necessary but helps win these communities to our side when we are under attack.

The strategy that the majority of the leadership of the local pursued was one of no support for the team concept, interest based bargaining or any other form of collaboration with management in the pursuit of their goals.  The negotiating team recognized that gains are not really won at the table--it is the conscious and organized intervention of the membership that gets results.  Historically, working people have made the most gains when we have relied on our own strength which means mobilizing our members and linking up with other unions and the communities in which we  live and work and a solidarity committee was set for this purpose.

Members of the solidarity committee, particularly from our grounds maintenance department, leafleted unemployment offices, shopping centers, and working class communities explaining Local 444s struggle for jobs and increased services as well as our opposition to the so called welfare reform which throws people off welfare in to public sector jobs at reduced wages and benefits.  Thousands of decent paying jobs have been lost in New York City under mayor Giuliani's welfare to work program--many of them jobs of AFSCME members.  A couple of Solidarity Committee members also spoke about the union's struggle for jobs on a local community TV. show.  Most communities have this type of community access media and we should use it more in the future.

The  Solidarity Committee also organized  a number of well attended and vocal mobilizations of our members. Numerous presentations were made to the Board of Directors demanding jobs and increases in pay and benefits for our members.  The employers did their best to prevent members from coming to these presentations by denying employees the time off but people still came.  An extremely successful rally was held on April 22nd, that was attended by close to 150 people. 

Due to pressure from their rank and file Local 2019s negotiating team, that for one reason or another had opposed any suggestions by Local  444's team of concrete joint activity involving the members of the two locals,  eventually agreed to a joint meeting of the memberships  that took place on July 30th.  Despite efforts by 2019s President and Chief Steward to limit the debate to wages only there was rich and varied discussion of the issues facing all EBMUD employees.  Of particular concern was the District's divisive proposal to link wage increases to performance appraisals.  This would have only affected new employees and those not yet at their top step ; it was an attempt to divide  the membership and seriously weaken the unions.  Local 2019 members were among the more vocal and concerned at this meeting.

The two Locals held separate meetings where the negotiating teams were authorized to call strike action of up to three days if the District continued to stall.  A strike committee meeting of the two locals was called to prepare for, and select, the committees that would be necessary for a work stoppage to be successful.  Local 2019s 1st VP who had been the least opposed to joint work played a key role in getting the word out and encouraging members to attend this meeting.

The strike committee meeting, with over 90 members from both Locals attending, was a tremendous success and we should all learn from this experience.  Strike sub-committees were set up and further meetings of these committees were planned.  However, the District, intervened to head off this developing and potentially dangerous unity in action of the two unions.  The strike committee meeting occurred on August 13, and on August 15, the District dropped their most offensive demands and increased the wage offer by close to $1,000,000.   Regretfully, 2019s negotiating team called off the sub-committee meetings that were to take place on August 20th, according to them on the advice of our business agent although there have been various claims as to where the initial suggestion came from.  Local 444s team, disagreed with our business agent and with 2019s team that we should postpone the strike committee meetings and felt more was to be had and the continued activity would strengthen us at the next negotiating sessions.  Despite this disagreement we believe that our business agent played an extremely positive and crucial role during the negotiating process. His presence was invaluable.   But without the support of 2019s team, we had lost our bargaining power--we all knew this.  The most important thing we should all learn is that preparation like this should be made before negotiations begin and we should enter talks from a position of strength.  The best way to avoid a strike or win one if it occurs, is to be fully prepared for one beforehand.

The purpose of this reflection is not to blame anyone or attack them for their role--simply to report developments as we saw them.  It is clear to us that the joint work that  Local 444's leadership has argued for  historically and from the beginning of the recent negotiations, was the key to our success--we believe the results speak for themselves. Contrary to the argument of 2019s negotiators that their members "needed educating"  "wouldn't turn up" to joint meetings or were simply unwilling to fight  they turned out to be among the most vocal and concerned at meetings.  We also still believe that one united AFSCME Local should be the goal of all union conscious activists here at EBMUD.  We hope that our brothers and sisters in the leadership of our sister local will re-consider their opposition to this goal.

AFSCME Local 444 Negotiating Team 1997

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