Time For A Better Way To Negotiate Public-Sector Union Contracts


We’re a little late getting to a May 9 article in the Park Ridge Herald-Advocate (“City appeals Labor Board’s ruling on union health care violations”).  But because that article demonstrates one of the problems the City of Park Ridge causes for itself by the way it deals with the unions representing its employees, better late than never.

Historically, the City – like our other local governmental units with unionized workers – treats collective bargaining as a mysterious process that requires a “strategy” devised and monitored in closed-session meetings because disclosure would fatally compromise it. So whenever employment matters are discussed, our elected officials run off into closed session meetings with the City’s legal beagles.

Invariably, the taxpayers remain in the dark. And, invariably. stuff goes wrong that costs those taxpayers money.

The latest screw up involves a collective bargaining agreement (i.e., a contract) ostensibly entered into between the City and the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150 representing our Public Works Dept. employees, which we wrote about in our 06.14.13, 03.14.14 and 12.05.14 posts. Local 150 represents approximately 23,000 members working in various industries throughout Northern Illinois, Northern Indiana, and Southeastern Iowa; and since 2006 it has become a sophisticated political player, throwing millions of dollars at politicians on both sides of the aisle.

Or, as we saw in the 2013 non-partisan Park Ridge mayoral election, at the candidate (unsuccessful challenger Larry Ryles) it felt it would provide a much more sympathetic ear than the late Mayor Dave Schmidt.

Long story short, the City Mgr. Shawn Hamilton and the City’s crack negotiators somehow had the City Council approve a contract with health care terms for its Public Works Department employees to which Local 150, on their behalf, never agreed.

So when the City started applying the new health care terms in that contract, Local 150 beefed to the Illinois Labor Relations Board (the “ILRB”), a sub-unit of state government dominated by political appointees and flunkies of Mike Madigan and his stooges. And to no one’s surprise, administrative law judge (and former ILRB ass’t. general counsel) Anna Hamburg-Gal, who has been an attorney only since 2010, found for Local 150.

We encourage readers to take a look at the 23-page written ruling online, especially pages 9 through 13, if only to see for themselves the kind of semi-incomprehensible goat rodeo just one small piece of those contract negotiations appears to have been – and how the City’s (H.R. Mgr. Mike Suppan and attorney Bob Smith) and Local 150’s (attorney Deanna Distacio) negotiators botched it so completely that the ALJ determined the contract the City began operating under in May 2013 wasn’t even a contract!

The City is appealing that decision, while Local 150 is calling on City taxpayers to pressure their aldermen into grabbing their ankles and meekly submitting to the union’s will rather than appeal.

That appears to be a Local 150 modus operandi: pick a fight with the City, then tell the taxpayers that their representatives are wasting their money fighting that fight – hoping to intimidate those representatives so that they fold up on their own, or that at least some taxpayers are dumb enough to believe the union’s “Shanghai Lil”-style propaganda.

What this kerfuffle illustrates, however, is the pitfalls of secretive negotiating “strategies” and non-public negotiating sessions which lead to these kinds of unnecessary and wasteful disputes, while also emboldening unions like Local 150 to make outrageous demands and negotiate in ways they might not want the public to see and hear. Conducting those negotiations in open, videotaped meetings would dispel the carefully-manicured, purely-politicial image of public-sector workers as Mother Teresa-types seeking just one more spot of gruel to sustain themselves and their families while they selflessly devote every waking hour to the welfare of the taxpayers.

But if any elected official wants to avoid future rodeos of this type while also leveling the playing field by making this process more transparent and accountable, there’s a pretty simple way of doing so.

Step one would be for the Council to decide, in open session as part of its annual budget process for any year in which a new union contract is to be negotiated, whether the City can afford to pay any additional compensation to the employees of that particular collective bargaining unit (e.g., Local 150, iCops, etc.). By conducting those deliberations over the whether, the how much and the why of any raises or bonuses in open session, interested members of the public could judge for themselves whether their elected officials are being fair and reasonable to the employees and to the taxpayers.

If the union wants to appear at those budget sessions and make its pitch for a higher budget number for its members, it could do so – but with the lights on, the camera running, and the reporters scribbling away. And once the City comes up with its fair-and-reasonable hard-dollar number, that number should be the City’s offer to the union.  Not 50%, or 75% or even 90%, but the whole 100% of that budget number.

No need for the City to play coy, or to stage some second-rate Kabuki just to make the City’s negotiators look like they’re clever negotiators who drive a hard bargain.

Oh yeah…and part of this process should be the City’s publishing of the current salary, benefits, and an updated pension calculation for every member of that bargaining unit, so that the taxpayers can know how much money, and what kind of benefits, those employees are already getting.

Any subsequent negotiations (i.e., the actual collective bargaining) about how the City’s dollar amount gets allocated can be done in open session, once again with the cameras running and the reporters scribbling away. Let the union state, on the record, whether it wants 3/4 to go to raises and 1/4 to benefits, or 2/3 and 1/3, etc.

And when the union decides, as it most certainly will, that the offered dollar amount isn’t big enough, the City Council’s response should be simple and straightforward:

“You’ve got our detailed budget. Tell us and the taxpayers what specific line items you want us to cut – and by how much – in order to come up with the extra money you want.”

That way the union and its member can go on record about where they think the extra money they want flowing into their pockets will be coming from. And what City infrastructure or services will get short-changed as a result.

Or how much higher they want our taxes to rise.

To read or post comments, click on title.

13 comments so far

Great idea! Total transparency for the taxpayers and the union. And a brilliant way to let the union instead of the public officials to own the funding decision for raises and/or bonuses.

Now, what are the chances something this simple and straightforward might actually be implemented?

EDITOR’S NOTE: We believe it is completely legal, so it becomes merely a question of aldermanic will. Unfortunately, there has been an inexplicable reluctance by a couple of allegedly fiscally-responsible aldermen to apply that principle to employees, so we’ll have to wait and see.

I’m sure you will get all sorts of flak about this, but this makes the most sense. Let the unions and their members take ownership of cuts that their raises cause, or tax increases that their raises cause.

Typical Watchdog tactic: make the employees do the job of the highly paid City staff and the elected officials. And then blame them for whatever it is they recommend cutting.

EDITOR’S NOTE: No, the “highly paid City staff and the elected officials” will already have done THEIR jobs by formulating a hopefully sound, fiscally-responsible budget, including whatever raise or bonus they believe to be fair and reasonable.

But if the subject union and the employees who have empowered that union to act on their behalf want more, let THEM own whatever cut(s) or tax increase(s) it will take to get there.

Your idea makes sense. That means its probably doomed.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Hope springs eternal.

But if it has any chance to succeed, it will be with the City Council. Because our two school boards are dominated by gutless wonders who can’t grab their ankles quickly enough or tightly enough whenever their administrators or teachers whistle. And the Park Board, at best, is precariously balanced between moderates and spendthrifts.

Probably too simple and straightforward. But one can hope.

EDITOR’S NOTE: “To live without Hope is to cease to live.” Dostoevsky

Why hasn’t anybody else thought of this? No offense, PD, but it’s hard to believe that nobody had this idea (which I think is a great one) and that it passed legal muster.

EDITOR’S NOTE: We are unaware of this idea being proposed previously to this, and we actually checked (via Google search). No offense taken: while we know we’re not the sharpest knife in the drawer, we are also reasonably confident that we’re not the butter knife.

OK, picture this: You want a raise at your company, and when you ask for what you believe you’ve earned, your boss challenges you to tell him where else in the corporate budget he should cut to pay for your raise.

EDITOR’S NOTE: We can’t “picture” that, because most people who ask their bosses for a raise do it soley for themselves, in person, one on one – not through a representative and not on behalf of a number of their fellow workers.

Pubdog, I invite you and everyone else to check the videos covering the moments before every vote to go into closed session meeting to discuss union contract negotiations. You will see that I have opposed every vote to go into closed session stating the same concerns and issues you bring up. I have been treated to some eye rolling and sighs because everyone knows it happens every time and they expect my speech and no vote. Alderman Knight has recently joined me but we’re still far from being the majority. Without knowing the reasoning of the other aldermen or wanting to speak for them, I will say that I think the City Attorney’s and labor law counsel’s recommendation against discussing “strategy” in open session plays a role in their decision-making process. Regardless, every time we got into those meetings things come up that should be known by the taxpayers and if this continues I will start discussing those matters publicly and outside of the closed session.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Alderman, we thank you for your vote for transparency in these matters. Nevertheless, we also understand the concerns of aldermen who might feel abashed by attorneys advising them to go into hiding in order to keep the City’s negotiating “strategy” secret.

That’s why we have suggested that the only “strategy” for collective bargaining is for the Council to formulate a fair and reasonable offer, in public open session, as part of the budget process. That way, there’s nothing to hide.

It’s difficult to rationally disagree with the opinions expressed in this column. In a more perfect world, we might expect “open agreements openly arrived at.” But no sentient person would confuse a state government dominated by “the flunkies of Mike Madigan and his stooges” as approaching perfection. The Illinois Constitution and the relevant statutes were written by the public employee unions for the benefit of public employee unions. And the unions know it. That’s one of the reasons public employees spend so much time and money keeping Mike Madigan in office.

If the unions don’t want to negotiate in public, they can always manufacture an accusation of unfair labor practices against the City. The governmental bodies created to support the public employee union can be counted on to hear such complaints with a sympathetic ear.

Also, the City’s claim that too large an increase in pay would force it to reduce the municipal work force cuts multiple ways: If there are excess employees on the public payroll, those employees should be RIFed regardless of the terms of the contract. Making decisions on staff size is a City Council decision. That’s why the aldermen earn the big bucks. Aldermen should not ever agree to retain superfluous employees (at taxpayer expense) as a condition of signing a contract.

But, like I said, Illinois is far from perfection incarnate. These things happen. So does negotiating in secret.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Unfortunately, unless the very part-time, barely-paid alderman are supposed to micromanage the full-time, well-paid administrators, Council decisions on staff size are highly-dependent on getting honest and credible information from those administrators who actually derive leverage for higher compensation for themselves based on the larger the staffs they manage.

Negotiating in secret has been the rule rather than the exception. So long as it continues, there will be no reform in the land of public employment. To the best of our knowledge, nobody has tried this play-your-cards-face-up technique before. Since nothing else has worked, why not give it a try?

Ald. Millissis–So only you and Dan Knight voted FOR TRANSPARENCY????????

Schubert, Wilkening, Maloney, Moran and Mazzuca all voted for close door sessions??? Please confirm.

These are things we need to remember when we cast our votes.


In your post you point out that these close sessions have happened multiple times and invite the reader to “check the videos”.

You go on to state the following…..”…… if this continues I will start discussing those matters publicly and outside of the closed session”. I guess I have to ask why now?? I mean you have admitted it has happened multiple times and you have done nothing so why have you changed your mind now??

So it’s not that you think it makes any sense at all for a company to demand the worker find his or her own raise somewhere else in the budget. It’s just that you hate the very idea of collective bargaining. If the guy doing a useful but unglam job can’t somehow get a decent living and benefits like yours going mano a mano with the system, too bad for him, right? And that goes double for the little woe-man, right? Sheesh.

EDITOR’S NOTE: We’ll try, again, to make it simple enough that even a Class Warrior can understand it (assuming it’s understanding you seek): collective bargaining in the private sector is fine because the “profit” motive tends to prevent management from rolling over for labor, and even constrains labor from making outrageous demands that might bankrupt the employer or send it packing to another state or country.

Not so with public sector unions, who know their state/county/municipal employers can’t move anywhere else, and aren’t likely to go bankrupt – at least not until the mopes who fill most of those governmental elective offices tax and borrow to the max.

Thank you for the coherent argument, but I disagree that there is no leverage on public sector employees akin to the private sector pulling up stakes: In tough economic times, voters make sure, through their elected officials, that public entity management cuts overtime, cuts head count and negotiates for less favorable packages. Of course, that’s only after the marrow has been extracted from any funding for the disabled or otherwise underrepresented/nonvoting public, just as executive perks and raises in the private sector are protected until the End Times. But still. Market forces do affect public employees similarly to — if more slowly than — private. As they should.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Better cut back on whatever kind(s) of pharmaceuticals are fueling these delusions, Class Warrior.

Chicago, Crook County and Illinois are borderline bankrupt precisely because their irresponsible and/or corrupt elected officials, for the past three decades-plus, haven’t done ANY of the things you claim the voters “make sure” they do.

And until the late Mayor Dave Schmidt was elected in 2009 and got a majority of sentient, fiscally-responsible aldermen in 2011 to help him start trying to manage the City honestly and competently, we had two decades where a majority of Park Ridge’s aldermen who had acted pretty much like their counterparts in Chiraq, Crook and Springpatch – only on a much smaller scale commensurate with Park Ridge’s size.

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