When a union doesn’t listen to its members

Looking Behind the Scenes
By: Jim Ruffalo
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Counting the votes in favor of the notebook while suggesting to our elected officials — on both sides of the aisle — that they can either quickly solve the budget messes without raising taxes, or they better start looking for another line of work after the next election. ... And speaking of looking for another occupation, that warning — sadly — is woefully meaningful to eight current employees (and a contract worker) of the City of Auburn who will be given the sack on June 1. They know who they are. They were officially notified within the required 30-day period, and in several cases, the face-to-face notifications wound up with tears being shed on both sides of the table. This upcoming layoff follows closely a similar one where some other very good employees were — as the British wryly put it — made redundant. The first round of layoffs mainly were a byproduct of the sagging economic situation, and some may feel the upcoming round is similarly influenced. Wrong! Sadly, many if not all of the upcoming layoffs could have been avoided. The city tried to trade a piece of the employees’ current salary for future time, which would have caused a current loss of a small part of the paycheck. But that loss could have been redeemed in the future for extra time off, which is precisely what several other governmental agencies have done. The city was emulating the Placer County government plan of having current employees voluntarily opt for some so-called furlough time, with some of those payroll savings used to save the jobs of those on the dreaded list of soon-to-be former employees. Even the Auburn Teachers of Placer (ATP) recently voted by a reported 2-1 margin to opt for two furlough days, which will equal a 1.07 percent pay cut, in order to save jobs belonging to some contemporaries. But apparently that same plan will not be adopted by the union representing city workers — Stationery Engineers No. 39. Now, before those rightly offended by the apparent lack of concern for fellow employees form a club to be used to beat in some thick skulls, be advised that Local 39 members themselves appeared to want to accept the city’s offer. Too bad, because they are being precluded from doing so by their own union. We’ve been hearing stories for several weeks about how more than a few Local 39 members wanted to vote on the issues, and how they had to force the union to produce (belatedly) its own bylaws, which were used to hold that election. Said ballot then resulted in a reportedly 2-1 margin to accept the city’s offer, but the union then insisted the election was only advisory and therefore not binding. I’m from Chicago and have seen more meaningful elections. Still, that decision by the union seemed to end the negotiations, meaning that eight city workers better start planing for an extended vacation, and trying to make do on unemployment checks. Dave Mackowiak, the city negotiator, confirms the impasse. “Local 39 has rejected our proposal,” was the way he put it, then added, “With that done, we went ahead to negotiate the impact of layoffs — as required by the current contract. That concludes the negotiations.” By the way, that contract expires in 2011, but what to do until then? In the meantime, we tried to check with Local 39 Business Agent Kevin O’Hare for his side of the story, but none of our calls were returned. Not surprising. I’ve had several rank-and-filers tell me that their phone calls go unreturned, and e-mails get ignored. However, we possess a copy of a petition local members sent to the union. It says, “I agree to two mandatory furlough days per month (not to exceed 10 percent of my base salary), to be bankable for use at a later time, upon request and approval.” The petition contained 17 signatures, which is more than half of the number of city workers. That missive was yet another attempt to get Local 39 to allow pay cuts in exchange for no layoffs, but again the union has seen fit to ignore the request. I’m a product of the unions’ glory years. My dad was a steel and auto workers organizer in Southern California. No matter how bad things got there — and here we refer to actual physical threats and injuries — he always put the local membership first, even if it got him in trouble with the district, state and national offices. He’s gone now, but we utter a prayer that Placer County unions will somehow remember how it’s supposed to be done. Jim Ruffalo’s column runs Sundays in the Journal. Reach him at jimruffalo@