As published in the Record Journal, Sunday February 27, 2011
The discussion has come around again with respect to union contracts, pay raises and the possibility of binding arbitration.
As we have already seen here in Wallingford, we never win a binding arbitration case. When you take something to arbitration you can say that the outcome is an unknown but not here in Wallingford; we always lose.
This is mainly because arbitrators review the case and consider the union position and the town’s “last, best offer” and compare the two.
Our last, best offer lately has been “zero.”
Salaries are compared with other union contracts in town, and pay rates for similar positions in towns with a comparable financial picture. Wallingford’s finances are assessed and it’s reviewed whether the town is able to afford pay hikes. Because of years of frugal spending habits and tight money management, Wallingford is so fiscally responsible that in this small circumstance success works against us. All of these factors end up making it impossible for the town to win an arbitration case.
This is best addressed by agreeing that the arbitration process is broken. When a negotiation reaches the point at which it goes to arbitration, arbitrators cannot properly consider objectively and simultaneously what is best for both the town and the union. When a town such as Wallingford ends up in this situation, it’s “rainy day fund” is often looked at like a solid resource available to fund the arbiters’ decision. In fact, that rainy day fund is really the fruit of responsible spending set aside for real costs and emergencies.
Wallingford and other towns should be proactive to work with lawmakers to address the arbitration process to make it fairer and more balanced in future situations. In the meantime Wallingford needs to understand what “bargaining in good faith” really means. It does not mean “zero percent raises regardless for the entire X year agreement” or “let’s set this now at zero and possibly re-negotiate it as needed later.” Unions would not be stupid enough to accept this. They know full well that no town would come back to the table merely because conditions have changed for the better. Most municipal employers — or any other kind for that matter — are not set up to respond that way.
We all understand that 16 percent of the workforce is unemployed or underemployed and that 9 percent of them are collecting unemployment. What needs to be understood as well is that the remaining 84 percent are working. We are dealing with rising fuel costs, food costs, insurance costs, local, state and federal taxes, and so forth. These things are not all sitting idly at zero percent inflation. It should not be assumed that pay should remain at the zero point either.
I am keenly aware that pay raises for municipal employees is one catalyst which causes taxes to go up. I am also keenly aware that going to arbitration generally leads to the cost of the arbitration itself and very often more in actual judgments than what was asked / negotiated for in the first place. That raises taxes even higher.
Wallingford needs to find a better understanding of what the actual work climate is for those still working and to obtain a proper understanding of what competing salaries are for given jobs. Then it must work to provide the best and fairest deal for all.
Otherwise the decision gets taken out of Wallingford’s hands and is made by others. Historically that has amounted to a win for the unions only. Good for them for winning those arbitrations, too, if the town is not being smart about playing the game under the current rules.
As I have said before, Wallingford does many smart things and they have worked well for years. I wouldn’t suggest changing anything that still works. But there are clearly some things that no longer work the way they used to. This is another perfect example of where we need to change up our game.