Labor Pangs

The people believe that employees should have a voice," says Jerry Beers. As area director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), he's pretty much expected to say that. But his words may be more than mere union posturing.

Denver city workers and representatives of a national public employees' union have begun negotiating with the city council in an attempt to win collective bargaining rights for as many as 6,000 workers. And though such a measure has failed to capture public support in the past, union leaders say that this time the momentum is on their side.

Last year, Denver voters approved collective bargaining for police officers and sheriff's deputies. Under that agreement, officers are prohibited from striking, and both sides must accept binding arbitration in wage disputes. (Firefighters received a similar pact more than fifteen years ago, although they do not have binding arbitration.) At this time, wages for civilian employees are determined by the Career Service Authority, Denver's personnel department.

According to Steven Kreisberg of AFSCME's Washington, D.C., office, the union's latest proposal is "identical" to what voters approved for police officers in 1995.

But that could change. AFSCME's bid is in the early development stage, and major questions and policy obstacles remain. Primary among them: Would the scope of bargaining include both wage and rules issues? What would happen to the Career Service Authority? Who would be covered by the proposal? And just how much would collective bargaining end up costing the city in wages and benefits packages?

"In terms of pay and benefits," says city financial analyst Marty Flahive, "most employees would probably not get a heck of a lot more or less than what they'd get in the job marketplace." As a city official, Flahive is pretty much expected to say such things. He also contends that the city might have to increase staffing if a collective bargaining agreement were to include such things as hiring ratios. "Until all that is resolved," Flahive says, "the sky is the limit."

Despite those question marks, the proposal has met with mainly favorable reaction from Denver City Council members thus far. "We're cautious," says Dennis Gallagher, who heads the council's public safety and personnel committee. "But we have [collective bargaining] for sheriff's deputies and for police and firefighters, and it seems to be working quite well. Under this proposal, workers would have a chance to have more of a collegial way in which to present their concerns.

"The rub we're sort of running into is how to divide up the city workers and how do we phase them in. And as Councilman [Bill] Himmelmann said, we don't want to be like the Denver Post, negotiating with twelve different unions to get the paper out. We're still sort of plugging along, seeing if we can get concessions."

Not all the city staff or council members are in such a conciliatory mood. Fred Timmerman, who heads the Career Service Authority, takes offense at AFSCME's attempts to stir up pro-union sentiment, most particularly a flier declaring Career Service to be "broken" and its wage surveys "mystifying." Timmerman says he is "bothered" by a proposal from a union that, at this point, counts among its members less than ten percent of eligible city employees.

And Councilman Ed Thomas says he is suspicious of AFSCME's motives in bringing the proposal to the city. "This reminds me of Robert Preston in The Music Man," Thomas said after one negotiation session. "In that movie, the only way to save the children is by organizing a marching band. They got all the equipment, and there was no real need, and no one knew how to play. It's the same thing here." When reminded that things turned out just fine for the folks in fictional River City, Thomas is grudging in his response. "But I wasn't in that town," he says. "And that town wasn't Denver."

Beers acknowledges that AFSCME has had a low profile. But, he says, it's because there's no collective bargaining agreement, and the role of union representatives has been limited to politicking and accompanying employees to grievance hearings. Interest in signing up has been low, and AFSCME counts only 600 city employees (out of 8,500 who are eligible) among its members.

In addition, the matter is something of a crapshoot for AFSCME. Even though its personnel drafted the proposal and even though union officials attend the negotiation sessions in an attempt to sweet-talk the council, there is no guarantee that city employees would choose AFSCME to represent them.

"They could pick somebody else," admits Kreisberg."But we're confident they would pick us."

AFSCME is one of the few unions to experience growth within the past dozen years. The organization has been successful in part because it has proved efficient in pushing elected officials into passing collective bargaining rights for public employees. But Colorado--along with some Southern states--has been one of its least successful arenas. Denver, says Kreisberg, "is behind the curve on this one."

There are about forty AFSCME locals in Colorado now, and a number of counties and municipalities offer collective bargaining to employees. The cities of Englewood, Leadville and Trinidad have organized, Beers says, as have social services employees in Pueblo.

AFSCME first brought a collective bargaining proposal to Denver in 1979. The city council was for it, but the measure failed at the polls. Voters would not approve it for the city's civilian employees, although they did okay it for firefighters.

There the matter sat for years, with AFSCME officials reluctant to try again. "There were a couple times we gave consideration to going for it," Beers says. "But for a number of reasons, it did not look like a good time to pass it."

That all changed last year, Beers says, when city voters approved collective bargaining for police and sheriff's deputies. Other city employees "kind of looked around and said, 'Wait a minute! Everyone else has it,'" Beers says. "And members of the local threw down the gauntlet. They said that if the International wouldn't help, they were going to do it anyway."

The push to organize may have been helped along, too, by the fact that Denver police used their newly granted collective bargaining rights to negotiate raises as high as 20 percent over the next three years. (Some of that money, however, is tied to "give-backs" of days off for pay.) In comparison, the city's civilian employees--who are guaranteed prevailing wages--received an average 1.8 percent increase in their salaries for 1996.

But wages are only part of it, Kreisberg says. "I think the employees want more input into the way wages are computed, and we will try to give them that voice. Right now, Career Services makes those pay decisions unilaterally."

AFSCME's proposal is now being scrutinized by the council's personnel committee. "Then we'll have hearings," Gallagher says, "and we'll take it to get the mayor's response, and we'll get city workers and the public to comment on it, and then the city finance people and the legal department will look at the costs and concerns, and then it will go to the full council for a vote."

If the council approves, Denver voters will decide in a referendum whether to amend the city charter to allow collective bargaining.

Despite those daunting tasks, however, Beers says he hopes to see the proposal through the council committee within the next sixty days and to bring it to a public vote next November.

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Karen Bowers