WALLINGFORD — It’s well known among bargaining units and negotiators that the town seeks to limit yearly union increases to 1.75 percent, Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr., a Republican, said last week. When unions seek yearly increases above that threshold, such as the 2.25 percent raise sought last week by the school district’s management union for the third year in a three-year contract, “we have a reason to not be in agreement,” the mayor said.
The Town Council rejected the management union’s contract, citing the 2.25 percent increase as a sticking point. The next step is binding arbitration, a process that town officials say could cost up to $20,000 in legal expenses. Through wage increases, the contract would have had an overall impact of $20,929 on the school board. While it might seem pointless to argue, Dickinson said that in these economic times, a 2.25 percent raise is not reasonable. If allowed, he said, such an increase could cause a ripple effect in future negotiations with unions “because everyone else will feel they should have the same.”
But Jason Zandri, a Democratic town councilor challenging Dickinson in the mayoral race, said bringing unions to arbitration “actually makes it worse.”
Unions often get what they want through arbitration, Zandri said, so it doesn’t hurt them as much when contracts are rejected by the town. Items negotiated by the town, such as reduced vacation time or increased insurance co-payments, may also be lost through the arbitration process, he added.
Because of the town’s relative financial health, unions argue it can afford to pay increased wages. Dickinson has previously said he doesn’t agree.
“The arbitrators say you can afford to pay more but from my perspective they don’t understand finances,” Dickinson told the Record-Journal in November 2010. “As long as you seem to have some money they say you can afford it, but if you use all your cash to pay operational expenses – with nothing in capital or in reserve — then you’ve made a big mistake.”
Zandri says the mistake is possibly spending $20,000 for the sake of $1,000 in the difference of pay, as in the case, he said, of the management contract rejected last week.
“In my mind’s eye it’s stubbornness,” Zandri said of Dickinson’s stance. “He thinks that if he continues to spend $20,000 in arbitration even if we lose that somehow he’s holding down a higher cost, but it’s not true.”
In the private sector, Dickinson’s thought process is applied regularly, said David Cadden, professor of entrepreneurship and strategy at Quinnipiac University. In a large firm with several unions, “they do look at each other’s contracts,” Cadden said. “Some unions become the point person.”
Asked how he would handle the wage increase in the school district’s management contract differently, Zandri said the town needs to factor in more than wages. Zandri, who was one of two councilors who voted to approve the contract last week, said town councilors should have deferred to the judgment of the Board of Education, which passed the contract unanimously. Also, the town’s relationship with labor unions needs to be taken into account.
“No labor union is going to have any respect for any administration at any level if they’re going to keep saying ‘we’re going to arbitration,’” Zandri said. “When you breed ill will in that manner, it doesn’t do anybody good.”
Wayne Gilbert, regional director of the United Public Service Employees union, which represents the four employees in the school district’s management union, made his frustration with the town apparent last week.
“It’s so ridiculous with Wallingford,” he said. “Everything goes to binding arbitration.”
Two arbitration awards were handed down this year as a result of failed contract talks with the town. The police union received a decision in July after a disagreement over pay increases. Over the course of the four-year contract, from 2012 through 2015, the town won the wage dispute in three of the four years through arbitration. While the police union won a 2.5 percent raise for this year, the town gets no retroactive raises for officers in 2012 and a 1.75 percent raise in 2014. Also, the town requested and received the right to reopen wage negotiations in 2015. Personnel Director Terry Sullivan said at the time that arbitration in this case cost between $18,000 and $20,000.
In April, an arbitration award regarding the Water Division employees’ union was delivered. In terms of wage increases, the town won arbitration for the first year of the contract, meaning there is no raise retroactive to July 1, 2011. But the water unit won a retroactive 2 percent wage increase in 2012, as well as a 2 percent increase this year.
“The general approach in American unions, when times are good, you fight for more money,” Cadden said. “And when times are bad you fight for job security.”
There’s a portion of the public that “really resents” municipal unions, Cadden said, aside from fire and police bargaining units.
It’s a gamble when dealing with arbitration, Cadden said. Arbitrators try to come to a settlement that’s best for both parties, but he likened negotiations to a “chess match.”
Arbitration cases are handled by the State Board of Mediation and Arbitration. Both the town and bargaining unit must pay for their own arbitrators, while sharing the cost of another neutral arbitrator. The town also retains a lawyer, Assistant Personnel Director James Hutt said. Arbitration is healthy when decisions are made that benefit both parties, he said. From a negotiation point of view, Hutt said “it’s always better to have parties agree.”
As recently as 2011, some Republicans have agreed with Democrats that arbitration is not prudent.
“When you take it to arbitration, it’s an unknown – and I don’t want to gamble with the public’s money that way,” said Town Council Republican John LeTourneau in a February 2011 Record-Journal story.
In the same story, Dickinson said “The system is hostage to itself.
“It’s very much driven by self-interest, and there’s not much objectivity in the decision-making that I can see,” the mayor said of binding arbitration. “The societal interest is being lost and not being served well, given what’s occurring in the economy.”