The need for a process

The need for a process


A hot issue in Wallingford politics is the town’s aggressiveness in negotiating collective bargaining agreements with its unions. Some have said the town is too quick to force contract negotiations to arbitration, which is expensive for both sides. This argument came up again recently because, on October 8, 2013, a divided town council (7-2) rejected a collective bargaining agreement the Board of Education negotiated with a management union.

Although a new contract with the managers could still be hammered out, many assume we are headed to arbitration. In arbitration proceedings, the town and the union submit to the arbitrators their last best offer on each issue in dispute. Wages are usually the big sticking points. The arbitrators apply statutory criteria to evidence to determine which side will win each issue.

One of the statutory criteria is the history of the negotiations. In this case, that history is the agreement the council rejected. If this dispute with the managers went to arbitration, therefore, the arbitrators would know the terms of the negotiated agreement, and they would probably give that great weight. It could be determinative.

Something similar occurred on September 8, 2009, about two months before municipal elections. Five councilors, 4 Republicans and 1 Democrat, followed the mayor’s advice and rejected a labor agreement the Board of Education negotiated with cafeteria workers. The cafeteria workers would have gotten, under the agreed-upon deal, a 1 percent wage increase the first year and 1.95 percent in the next two years. The dispute went to arbitration.

In its unanimous decision, the arbitrators referred to the agreement the parties negotiated, but which the council rejected. They said the Board of Education and the employees agreed upon terms that were “... negotiated in good faith and presumably consisted of give and take on various items as well as consideration of the public policy and the ability to pay. Both sides of the dispute came to an understanding and agreement ....”

That language should have been fair warning to the town that once an agreement is reached as a result of negotiations, it’s difficult to achieve a better result in arbitration. So what happened to the cafeteria workers and the town after spending lots of cash on fees for the arbitration?

Surprise! The arbitrators awarded the cafeteria workers 1 percent the first year and 1.95 percent the second, and they ruled the parties could negotiate the wage increase in the third year. They did. The agreement (again) was for 1.95 percent, and the council, having learned its lesson, promptly approved it.

George Santayana (1863-1952), a Spanish philosopher, famously said that if you cannot remember the past, you’re condemned to repeat it. “Condemn” is too harsh a word under these circumstances, but his comment raises a good issue. The council wasted money in 2009. Did it learn from experience and make the right move on October 8, 2013?

From a perspective of pure politics, the council and the mayor did make the right move in that they can tell taxpayers they didn’t agree to anything. Other than leaving no fingerprints on the employees’ raises, however, the councilors will not have accomplished much. The arbitration award will closely resemble the negotiated agreement because the statute says that the history of the negotiations matters. The award, in the end, therefore, will stand as the precedent the councilors and the mayor didn’t want. The arbitrators and the lawyers will benefit and that’s about all who will.

There needs to be a process so that, once again, the Board of Education and an employee union don’t get led into believing that a collective bargaining agreement they negotiate will be acceptable, only to find after many have spent time working out a deal, that it’s all been wasted. Maybe the best plan would be to avoid council votes on labor issues in the Fall of odd-numbered (election) years, if ... ahem ... you know what I mean.

Mike Brodinsky is a former town councilor, chairman of the School Roof Building Committee and host of public access show “Citizen Mike.”

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