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Mayor announces raises after yearslong impasse

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

Mayor Richard Berry abolished taxpayer-funded “union time” and announced a 3 percent raise on Friday for thousands of city employees – over the objection of union leaders.

Berry said his administration is imposing its last, best offer after years of negotiations failed to produce an agreement with four city unions, covering blue-collar, clerical, transit and security employees. They represent about 2,100 employees, or roughly one-third of the city’s workforce.

A union spokesman said it was wrong for the mayor to act unilaterally and that the unions expect to challenge Berry in court.

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The sticking point in labor talks, according to the Berry administration, centered on “union time,” a practice in which union leaders draw their regular city pay even if they dedicate some or all of their work day to handling union business, rather than their regular city jobs.

BERRY: Impatient with delay in settlement (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

BERRY: Impatient with delay in settlement (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

The way Berry described it, rank-and-file workers haven’t received a raise in years because their union leaders wouldn’t relent on union time.

Under Berry’s decision, union members will now give up three hours of vacation leave a year, creating a pool their representatives can tap if they need to handle union work during the day.

“Quite frankly, I’m tired of waiting,” Berry said Friday. “… I want to get that (raise) into the paychecks of our valuable employees.”

Rocky Gutierrez, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 18’s chief negotiator for city contracts, said the unions expect to take Berry to court.

“We believe this is wrong,” Gutierrez said in an interview. “The city is basically telling the employees, ‘What you do at the table doesn’t matter. We’re going to impose our rules on you.'”

As a matter of fairness, Gutierrez said, the city should have agreed to enter binding arbitration – a process that allows a neutral third party to consider each side’s contract offer and pick one.

“The city refused to go to arbitration,” he said. “Instead of doing it right and letting a third party decide, they just basically implemented their proposals.”

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Gutierrez said the changes go beyond union time and pay raises. There are new provisions covering promotions and “due process” protections for employees, he said, stripping employees of their rights.

A mayoral spokeswoman described the other changes as “nothing groundbreaking.”

Berry, a Republican, has been at odds with city unions for years. In 2010, the summer after he took office, he cut employee pay an average of 2.2 percent to help balance the city budget amid the recession.

Much of the city’s workforce didn’t get raises in subsequent years because of the stalemate in contract negotiations. Until Friday, some employees hadn’t received a raise since 2009, Gutierrez said.

But there’s been some recent progress.

The unions covering police, firefighters and mid-level managers have agreed to contracts that include raises and allow donated vacation leave to cover union time, similar to what the city imposed Friday. About two-thirds of city employees are represented by those unions.

The remaining four unions continued without a contract.

This month, city councilors adopted a vote of no confidence in the city’s top labor negotiator, a private company called Management Associates Inc. It was a 6-3 vote, with Republican Dan Lewis joining the five council Democrats.

Berry said the terms imposed Friday are a “fair deal.” The city isn’t opposed to union business, he said. “We simply don’t think they should be doing it on the taxpayers’ dime,” he said.

Union leaders have contended the practice saved the city time and money by helping to resolve disputes before litigation.

Of the 2,100 employees covered by the four unions, Berry said, only about 825 of them are actually dues-paying members of the union.

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