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Talk about hard labor. The city's heavy-equipment operators might work with backhoes, but last week, it was the City Council that had to do the heavy lifting.

Members of the City Council began the first of 22 impasse committees, including a grueling schedule Wednesday to hear contract disputes between the city administration and its heavy-equipment

operators, the city and its general-services machinists, and the city and its code-enforcement inspectors.

With the city's budget woes in mind, council members struggled about how to balance the needs of employees and citizens. And some council people were audibly frustrated at the lengthy, and perhaps needless, process.

"I don't know why we're sitting at this table," said Councilman Joe Brown during the machinists' hearing. "I don't want to put this type of burden on other council members. ... What I wish for the future is that the administration and the unions can come together with some consensus."

Representatives for the various unions repeatedly argued that the city administration negotiated in bad faith.

"This process is one that I think is broken. There simply were no negotiations. Had they been there, I think there could have been some meaningful discussions," said Deborah Godwin, a representative for the heavy-equipment operators. "We put a proposal on the table a week before the deadline. The city didn't make its proposal until the final hour. That was their first, last, and best offer."

The city proposed a zero-percent wage increase beginning July 1, 2006, and a zero-percent increase July 1, 2007. The union's proposal was for a zero-percent increase in 2006, but a 1 percent increase in 2007. The union also wanted an increase in the uniform allowance.

"Did we need to wait two months for something that said zero, zero?" asked Godwin. "I don't think so."

If council members found their role as King Solomon frustrating, it was understandable. Solomon at least had the option of cutting the baby in half.

Last month, the administration suggested that, under the current system, the unions have no incentive to negotiate. Once the two sides reach an impasse, the council must choose between them: They can't negotiate any middle ground. If one side thinks they have a good chance of winning council approval, there's no reason to make concessions.

Though Memphis chief administrative officer Keith McGee repeatedly asserted that the administration acted in good faith, the council seemed to be leading them to the table.

During mediations over the machine operators' contract, it became apparent that the administration had erred on what the union workers currently receive for uniforms.

"Your numbers came in wrong," said TaJuan Stout Mitchell, pointing out the error. "I'm going to have a problem voting for bad numbers."

Surely sensing they could lose, the administration quickly asked the union into the hallway to negotiate the terms.

The unions also argued that the negotiator didn't have the authority to make concessions.

"Under the National Labor Relations Act, if negotiators have no authority, they're negotiating in bad faith, because the other side is not really there," said Godwin.

The proposal for the machinists' contract included no wage increase over the two-year period. The union's proposal didn't ask for any additional money, but asked to re-open salary negotiations in 2007.

"We recognize that the cost impact would be minimal," finance director Roland McElrath said, "but we think there are other reasons why this proposal is not acceptable to the city. One of those is that it requires a wage re-opener."

One wonders why that was a deal-breaker. It doesn't mean an automatic wage increase. It's not like time should be a factor, because they've already wasted plenty of that.

"What would be the harm of seeing what the city's financial position is again next year?" asked Godwin. "If the mayor's predictions are correct, the city will be doing well."

At this initial stage, it seems the city's negotiating strategy worked. On Wednesday, council members held the line on wages, reiterating the fact that they don't want to raise property taxes. But with 22 impasse committees convened -- and one over something as small as re-opening negotiations -- it seems the process should be improved.

"The first impasse hearing proved to me that, if nothing else, our ordinance governing this process is very outdated," said Mitchell, a participant in all three hearings. "We clearly need to revisit it and make some amendments and changes."

Those could include adding mediators and a proposal deadline before negotiations end.

"Each group is at the mercy of the other," said Mitchell. "Of course, the city holds all the cards. ... We need to require certain people to be at the table rather than sending surrogates."

While the situation didn't result in a strike for the workers, it was definitely a strike against the city.

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