There was an awkward moment Monday night outside Kalispell City Hall as about 17 city employees marched back and forth up the block holding signs, protesting the contract dispute between their union and the city.
Shortly before the city council meeting was to begin, City Manager Jim Patrick, who has been leading the team representing Kalispell in the contentious negotiations, parked his truck and walked into the front door of City Hall. As he passed Timm Twardoski, the regional field representative for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the two men exchanged tight-lipped nods and cursory greetings.
The marching city employees eyed Patrick as he walked down the sidewalk. Dave Funk, a picketer and mechanic for the city garage, watched and then shouted to Twardoski after Patrick had entered the building.
“Did he speak to you, Timm?” Funk asked Twardoski.
“Oh he said ‘hi’ like he always does,” Twardoski replied. Funk seemed disappointed there wasn’t more of a reaction.
Eliciting a reaction was, after all, the point of the informational picketing. City employees aren’t striking, but the goal of their demonstration was to draw attention to the dispute over longevity pay the AFSCME is having with the city.
One of the signs carried read: “The city said ‘deal’ then ‘no deal.’”
“We’ve been lied to,” Twardoski said in an interview before the council meeting. “I’ve been in negotiations when you can tell that an employer hates your union and this is one of them.”
At issue are differing interpretations over the calculation of longevity pay in a tentative three-year contract for city employees, with the union arguing that the city signed off on a deal providing workers an extra ten cents on their hourly wage for every year employed. So, a 20-year employee of the city would receive an extra $2 per hour. Current longevity pay allows workers five cents on their hourly wage for every year employed.
The dispute concerns whether a city employee would be paid the ten cents calculation for all their years employed – as the union interprets it, or whether that ten cents longevity fee would kick in with the new contract, and the prior years of employment would still earn the five cents per hour fee – the city’s interpretation of the contract.
Twardoski said the picketing and public comments at the city council were to raise public awareness about the stalled negotiations.
“We don’t think the council members know what’s going on,” Twardoski said, charging city representatives with showing up late and leaving early for negotiating sessions, failing to offer proposals, and treating union representatives in an insulting way. “This is by far the most antagonistic negotiations we’ve ever seen.”
Marching Kalispell city employees also protested wages they said were the lowest in Flathead Valley when compared to comparable jobs in other cities and the private sector.
“I just think that we’re kind of underpaid,” said Jack Brooks, a parking enforcement officer. “Actually it’s bonified, we are underpaid.”
Brooks added that he was marching, “so things are made better for us and the people who come behind us.”
The AFSCME’s local chapter, 256, has 73 city employee members. If negotiators remain at an impasse after the July 19 meeting with the state mediator, Twardoski said he believes he has enough votes to strike.
The city council took no actions on the labor dispute, but simply listened to public comment from Twardoski and four city employees.
After the council meeting, Patrick said the differing interpretations over the tentative contract are significant, and could cost the city $147,000 if the union gets its way.
As for some of Twardoski’s assertions that the city was engaging in bad faith negotiations, Patrick said it was just so much “pointing fingers and trying to stir the pot.” Both parties have shown up late for meetings by a few minutes and the city has been straightforward and “very proactive” in giving the union any information it needs, Patrick added.
In a recent conference call, Patrick said the state mediator agreed with the city’s interpretation of the contract and the union negotiators participating on the call verbally acknowledged it.
“I’m just disappointed that, again, the 10 cents an hour is such an issue with them – especially when state mediators explained things to them,” Patrick said. “If there’s any bad faith bargaining or anyone going back on their word, I don’t think it’s the city.”
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