by Larry Kline
Havre Daily News
It looked as if the city and unionized workers in the Havre Public Works Department had agreed on a new labor contract in record time, but that agreement may now be in jeopardy.
American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 336 president Darren Johnson said he thought the negotiations for a new two-year contract were complete at the end of the union's last meeting with the Havre City Council's Labor Relations Committee. Council member and committee chair Terry Schend called Johnson several days later, however, and told him that Havre Mayor Bob Rice had taken issue with one of the proposals and wanted to reopen negotiations.
At issue is a proposal to increase the pay grades for the city's assistant meter reader and two of its sanitation truck operators, Johnson said.
Schend and AFSCME representative Pete Parsons, who traveled from Helena to discuss the issue with Johnson last week, both said today they have contacted each other but have not yet been able to discuss the issue.
City public works director Dave Peterson said today that the jobs in question are now seen as duties instead of one of several city job classifications. Creating classifications for those employees would be detrimental to the operation of the department because it would strain a tight budget and limit supervisors' abilities to use those workers to perform other duties or use other personnel for those jobs, Peterson said. An increase to grade 2 would have added 64 cents to those positions' hourly pay.
Johnson said last week he negotiated the proposal in order to define those positions.
"I'm trying to get three guys in a position to be left alone and do their job," he said.
Johnson is a grade 4 assistant mechanic at the city shop, which means he has specific duties and receives more pay than a regular city worker. Also, if he is taken away from those duties, he still receives the same hourly wage, as does the person who is assigned to perform his regular work. If the union gets what it wants, the same would hold true for the three positions in question.
In a meeting with the Labor Relations Committee June 16, the city and the union had agreed on a number of proposals, but still had to negotiate an across-the-board pay increase and two other proposals, including the one at issue. Johnson said he met separately with members of the local union before coming back to the bargaining table.
Johnson and the other union negotiators agreed to a 3 percent pay increase for each of the next two years in exchange for the city's agreement on his proposals, he said. The union had been asking for a raise of $1.25 an hour.
Members of the committee agreed to the proposal, Johnson said. In his mind, he said, all that was left to do was to bring the process to an official close by drawing up the changes to the contract and allowing both sides - the full City Council and the membership of Local 336 - to consider and then ratify the two-year contract.
"The proposals were agreed to," he said. "We were done. I took (Schend's) word and shook his hand."
Schend said he spoke with Rice, who could not be reached for comment today, about the proposals. Rice's opinion is important in the process, Schend said, because he knows more about the situations and challenges faced by his department heads.
"We try to do the best we can, but (the department heads) are the ones that have to work with the agreement," Schend said. "We don't have to work with these agreements every day."
City Council member Jack Brandon, who used to chair the Labor Relations Committee, said today that he is unsure of the mayor's exact power in the negotiating process, but thinks it is appropriate for the committee to approach Rice and the department heads when they feel it is necessary.
"I really think it's important for the Labor Relations Committee to work with the mayor," Brandon said. "The mayor has to work with the budget. The final say on the negotiations and the budget rests with the committee and the council itself."
Havre does not have a city charter and therefore relies on state statutes to set governmental procedures. Brandon said the state code did not offer any specific definition of the mayor's role in labor negotiations.
Peterson said he doesn't disagree with city employees requesting more pay, but creating the job classifications limits supervisors' flexibility.
"Once you start giving everybody a job description, it makes your department that much more difficult to manage," he said. "Right now, we can put several different people in those positions. This would limit our ability to do that. What if these people are gone for a day? Also, when you're sitting with a tight budget, it makes it difficult."
Parsons said today he will speak with Schend and then discuss the matter further with Johnson to see what can be done to resolve the issue.
"Obviously, there is some confusion as to what constituted the agreement, and we're just waiting to hear back from the City Council," Parsons said.