Politics » Politics Feature

The Unions Go Public

Discontented city employees make their pay and benefits a federal case.


It is no secret that long-standing relationships between public employees' unions and governmental units are in jeopardy.

For much of the spring, national attention was fixated on efforts by Wisconsin state government to disenfranchise teachers' unions. And, here in Tennessee, the abolition of bargaining rights for the Tennessee Education Association and its affiliates was arguably the most dramatic single event to emerge from the 2011 session of the General Assembly.

Now the battle is being joined between the city of Memphis and 13 local unions. At a press conference held by union representatives on Government Plaza Monday morning, Mike Williams, vice president of the Memphis Police Association, charged that union-busting and not money was the key issue in the unions' dispute with the city, one which has now been formalized in a class action suit against the Memphis City Council and the administration of Mayor A C Wharton.

"That's exactly what it is," Williams answered, when asked by a reporter if anti-union sentiment was involved when cuts in pay and benefits were included in the final city budget approved by the council on June 21st.

"This is not about money," he said. "It's about trying to do away with the viability of union contracts. If they're able to take away money this time, they're going to come back next time and do something else."

The suit filed in federal court seeks to invalidate the city's action in imposing on city employees a 4.5 percent pay cut, which is at variance with agreements reached earlier in formal impasse talks between the unions and city government, said Essica Littlejohn of the Police Association in an opening statement.

"A deal is a deal," Littlejohn said. "Once you've signed a contract, you have to stick to the terms."

The suit seeks a preliminary injunction and a permanent injunction later against both the pay cuts and execution of a planned buyout procedure for city sanitation workers.

Williams said that the setting aside of $13 million from the city's reserves as a buyout fund for sanitation workers, "which they didn't even ask for," was a preliminary move toward privatization. "They want to draw down sanitation workers, and then they will say, 'We don't have enough sanitation workers.'" Then would come an overt move to privatize, Williams said.

Meanwhile, rumors abound that there will be efforts at the next council meeting of July 29th to alter last month's budget agreement and to rescind the cuts in pay and benefits for city employees. But various council members privately express skepticism that seven votes can be found to support such a move, which would cost a total of $17 million, money that presumably would have to come from the $76 million reserve fund.

In the wake of the tragic death of police officer Timothy Warren the weekend before last, Councilman Joe Brown, among others, had expressed confusion concerning what he voted for in his vote to approve the fiscal 2011-2012 budget. Brown and some other council members said last week that they hadn't realized they had approved a 4.6 percent pay cut for city employees when they voted on a package lopping off 12 paid holidays.

Mayor Wharton would later restore the paid holidays in favor of an out-and-out open and declared pay cut. But various council members say there was no question that, whatever they said last week, every member of the council was fully aware on June 2nd` that, whether by dropping paid holidays or by imposing a simple percentage cut, city employees' salaries were to be cut by 4.6 percent. That was always a part of the final package.

Meanwhile, Councilman Jim Strickland, who does not favor restoring the pay cuts, had done some arithmetic last week, observing that Wharton had brought to the table on budget night a proposal totaling $671 million — only $668 million of which was approved, a fact leading to the prolonged council stalemate that was finally resolved with the revocation of a 2008 property tax cut in the amount of 18 cents.

According to Strickland's count, the roughly $20 million gained from the tax increase should have put the final budget figure in the neighborhood of $690 million, but the final released budget figure was closer to $680 million, suggesting that the $20 million add-on had been applied against a base of $661 million, not the original $671 million.

Where, Strickland wondered, was the odd $10 million that seemed to have disappeared from the total? And could this amount turn up on July 19th as potential collateral for at least a partial turnaround on employee pay cuts?

Budget chairman Shea Flinn, who had moved for the 18-cent tax-cut restoration on budget night, acknowledged that "the special assessment obviously impacts the budget in some ways, freeing up money." But, said Flinn, he believed anything gained would be held in reserve for the $57 million debt still owed Memphis City Schools. Rather famously, MCS had sued for and was granted a $57 million court judgment after the council voted to withhold that amount from the city schools in the wake of the 2008 tax cut.

Flinn was adamant that no money had been secreted away and that, consequently, there was no money to be "found," that all funds had been accounted for by the time of the June 21st budget vote.

Any attempt by the council to tap into what might superficially appear to be available funds would likely run into the same liability issues that it incurred with its ill-fated vote of 2008, Flinn said. Moreover, he noted, an increase in debt service expense next year would further offset any imagined gain.

In short, the money, more or less in the amount Strickland suggested, might indeed exist, at least as a theoretical sum, but could not be committed and basically had not, in any true sense, been freed up.

That may not be enough to keep it from being the subject of debate on Tuesday, July 19th, however — particularly in view of the renewed pressure from the employee unions.

Chism, Bunker Prevail on Commission:

As expected, Democrat Sidney Chism got his second consecutive term as chairman of the Shelby County Commission on Monday, over what amounted to nominal, but symbolic, opposition from Republican commissioner Mike Ritz.

Chism had already lined up enough votes from both Democrats and Republicans to prevail on the first ballot of voting by commissioners, and he was aided in his effort to break with tradition by what amounted to a payback effort mounted by commission Republicans against one of their own, current vice chair and chairman pro tem Mike Carpenter.

Carpenter has frequently angered other GOP members by his willingness to vote with Democrats on key issues, and he withdrew from the chairman's race last week in recognition of the fact that he lacked enough votes to ascend to the chairmanship for 2011-2012, as would normally have been the case for a vice chair.

Chism said after the vote that he had wanted the second term because questions regarding the form of a pending merger between Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools, including a commission plan to appoint a new all-county school board, remain unresolved. U.S. district judge Samuel Hardy Mays has said he will rule soon on litigation regarding the matter.

"And there's another reason," Chism said. That was to dispel the habits of partisanship which he said had damaged the commission and which, according to him, were embedded in the now-broken tradition of alternating chairmen by person and by party each year.

Interestingly, though, Chism consistently cast his votes for Republican candidates in the several ballots taken by the commission to elect a vice chair. The two original candidates were Democrat Henri Brooks and Republican Chris Thomas, but neither could muster the seven votes necessary to prevail.

Subsequently, the vice chairman's race became a contest between Democrat Steve Mulroy and Republican Terry Roland, and, when neither of them could gain a majority, either, eventually GOP member Wyatt Bunker was nominated, and, with help from votes by Chism and Democrat Justin Ford, finally got elected.

It remains to be seen whether Bunker is able to restore the former tradition and gain elevation to the chairmanship next year. Chism has said he will not seek a third straight term as chairman.


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