Tips for Negotiating with Public Sector Unions

You’ve just been elected to the city council. You’re 34 years old and you’ve been attending your city council meetings for almost a decade. You’ve served on some civic improvement commissions. You’ve been a concerned activist for most of your life. But the firefighters union contract is being renegotiated this year, and you’re about to go behind closed doors and negotiate.

On the other side of the table are your respected friends who have protected your town for as long as you can remember. But their union is part of a national organization that wields tremendous financial and political power. And sitting across that table, alongside your friends who run the local fire department, are seasoned professionals who have been involved in labor negotiations for their entire careers. You are outgunned. What do you do?

This scenario has played out across California, especially in the smaller cities and counties and school districts. The elected officials charged with managing these smaller jurisdictions work part-time, for little or no pay. They negotiate with career professionals whose unions often are the largest single source for the campaign contributions that got them elected, or can get them defeated in the next election. The result of this situation is that government unions have a huge advantage in contract negotiations. For all practical purposes, they often run these smaller towns and school districts. What do you do?

Here are a few suggestions that can help make a difference:

1 – Use Outside Negotiators:

They will provide greater expertise in the subject matter, they will already know proven negotiation strategies, they will readily understand the contract language, and they offer a valuable independent, third-party perspective.

Of course it isn’t always necessary to hire an outside negotiator, it depends on the complexity of the negotiations and it depends on the financial impact of the contract. If it affects a large percentage of your budget, it makes more sense to hire an independent negotiator.

If you decide to hire an outside negotiator, you also have to be sure you are in compliance with existing codes and state law. Here is sample language to insert into a resolution to hire an outside negotiator:

OUTSIDE NEGOTIATOR – SAMPLE LANGUAGE

The use of an outside negotiator shall apply to all formal meet and confer processes undertaken pursuant to the Meyers-Milias-Brown Act, where either a recognized employee organization or the city, through their respective representatives propose 1) significant changes to contract terms, 2) extensions, or 3) when the employee association negotiates with third party negotiators or legal counsel.

In an effort to avoid inherent conflicts of interest, if an outside negotiator is deemed necessary, the principal representative negotiating on behalf of the city shall, 1) not be an employee of the city, 2) not be a member of any public pension plan under the city, and 3) have a demonstrated expertise in negotiating labor and employment agreements on behalf of municipalities. The city council shall designate one or more management level employees to be present during negotiations and to assist the principal negotiator as the city council and/or principal negotiator deem appropriate.

2 – Have an Independent Auditor Analyze the Fiscal Impact:

The first step is to get complete factual information in order to perform an economic analysis of the contract. Here are factors to consider:

Get an actuarial analysis: Preparing and providing an economic analysis of the short and long term costs of every term and condition of employment in the contract is the first way to ensure that 1) city council members have the best data available in front of them to negotiate and make a decision, and 2) the public has the appropriate data to vet the contract and the Council’s proceedings. If these negotiations affect pension benefits in any way, the economic analysis should include both the funded and unfunded actuarial liability that would or may ensue from adoption of the contract.

Use an independent auditor: This will allow city council members, staff, and the
public to benefit from the general level of confidence provided by a thorough and
reliable economic analysis by an external professional. Information from outside auditors should be used in conjunction with information from staff whenever practical.

Make sure the economic analysis includes tangible comparisons: The economic analysis of each term and condition of the contract can and should be viewed in the framework of how it will affect the citizens. Also, utilize tangible examples of comparisons with other programs. For instance, if a contract will cost the city X amount of dollars, contextualize it to show that X amount of dollars is equal to a specific city service or program.

Invest in staff training so they can also perform economic analysis: In addition to the use of an independent auditor, city human resources professionals need the proper resources and training to provide and analyze an economic analysis.

Provide for public review of the proposed new contract: The City should consider making the fiscal impacts of the contract available to the public and the City Council at least two (2) City Council meetings prior to consideration by the City Council of an initial meet and confer proposal.

INDEPENDENT AUDITOR – SAMPLE LANGUAGE

An independent auditor, a certified public accountant, or an actuarial accountant, shall prepare a study and supplemental data upon which the study is based, that identifies the fiscal impacts attributed to each term and condition of employment made available to the members of all recognized employee organizations.

The first analysis shall be of existing contract costs and of each thereafter.
The above report and findings of the independent auditor shall be completed and made available for review by the city council and the public at least two (2) City Council meetings before consideration by the city council of an initial meet and confer process.

The above report shall be regularly updated by the independent auditor to itemize the cost and the funded and unfunded actuarial liability which would or may result from adoption or acceptance of each meet and confer proposal. These measurements shall display the fiscal impacts of the employee association and or/city proposals. The report shall be prepared to include all benefit and pay aspects of each MOU, and shall include written council member acknowledgement that the report has been read and considered by the signing councilmember.

3 – Consider Transparent Discussion of Offers and Counteroffers

California’s current open meeting laws provide that a City Council can meet in closed session to provide its bargaining unit representatives with instructions and parameters for negotiation in the meet and confer process. Closed sessions allow City Councils to speak privately regarding their bargaining parameters without disclosing these parameters to labor representatives.

Additionally, the meet and confer process provides the opportunity for city representatives and labor representatives to bargain in good faith in order to reach an agreement on the proposed labor contract. Here are factors to consider:

Report the Facts: Transparency may result in more realistic counters or counteroffers. Broad dissemination of offers and counteroffers provides a progress report and clearer understanding for both the public and bargaining unit members.

Exercise discretion: Disclosure of offers and counteroffers may result in additional public posturing and increased politicization, which can affect negotiations. All parties involved in negotiations should use caution and clear communication when reporting out of closed session.

TRANSPARENCY – SAMPLE LANGUAGE

The city council shall report out the details of all formal offers that have been rejected at the time of the counteroffer rejecting each proposed term. City council labor negotiators shall have the duty to advise the city council during any closed session of all offers, counteroffers, information, and/or statements of position discussed by the labor negotiators taking place in the meet and confer process since the last such closed session.

4. Require Disclosures of Private Communications

Having city council members disclose communication contacts that were had with any labor representative is another way to bring transparency to the negotiation process and to build faith with the public. A careful value judgment can be made to what type of conversation is appropriate to report to the public. Factors to consider:

Disclose communications: While this principle may be contentious for some city council members, it can be viewed as a disclosure requirement, not a “no-deal” requirement. The communication that is disclosed may simply be that the conversation occurred.

Consider the impact on the process: There is some historical context that private meetings, without the disclosure of names, have been the environment needed to reach an agreement. However, a balance can be found to reconcile transparency with private communications. If a council member is going to meet with the employee group they should remember their closed session obligations and just listen. Council members that talk to employee groups outside of formal negotiations may undermine the negotiation process.

Preserve the ongoing relationship: All parties should approach the process in a respectful and sensitive way that will assist in building long-term working relationships that survive the sometimes difficult negotiation process.

DISCLOSURE – SAMPLE LANGUAGE

Each city council member shall disclose both publicly and during closed sessions, the identity of any and all employee association representatives with whom the city council member has had any verbal, written, electronic or other communication(s) regarding a subject matter of a pending meet and confer process.

5 – Allow Time for Public Comment

Disclosing the MOU and making it subject to more than one (1) city council meeting provides the opportunity for the public to effectively weigh in on the matter. Factors to consider:

MOU negotiations should have time for public comment consistent with other ordinances: 1st and 2nd readings at City Council meetings is standard practice for normal ordinances, and this seeks to put labor negotiations under that standard.

Be sure to get the timing right: Cities must remain in compliance with AB 537 (Chapter 785, Statutes of 2013)3 which requires that if a tentative agreement is reached by the authorized representative of a City and a recognized bargaining unit, the city council must vote to accept or reject that agreement within thirty (30) days of 1st consideration at a noticed public meeting.

PUBLIC COMMENT – SAMPLE LANGUAGE

Any agreed upon memorandum of understanding shall be introduced for first reading at a regular city council meeting and presented for approval at the next regular city council meeting in the same manner as a the first and second reading of an ordinance.

REFERENCES

To read Assembly Bill No. 537 (Chapter 785, Statutes of 2013) please click the following link:  http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/pub/13-14/bill/asm/ab_0501-0550/ab_537_bill_20131013_chaptered.htm

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

These suggestions were originally crafted by a committee of experienced local elected officials, city staff and thought leaders through a policy committee at the Association of California Cities -Orange County.

 

 

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