Emotions ran high at a union meeting for the Local 256 chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees last month, when about 50 out of 73 Kalispell city employees called vehemently for a vote to strike, according to Timm Twardoski, the regional field representative and lead negotiator.
Negotiations between the union and the city had not yet reached the formal stage when a vote to strike applies, known as “impasse,” so Twardoski was able to convince city workers that such a motion would be meaningless. But he said the sentiment expressed in that meeting showed the union is stronger and more resolute than ever.
“We didn’t have as solid of a union in the past as we do now,” Twardoski added. “We’ve never had a membership that, I felt, was strong enough to push the city with an informational picket or a strike.” But before the June 18 city council meeting, city employees did just that, with about 17 workers marching and carrying signs.
A state mediator is scheduled to meet again July 19 with union negotiators representing city employees, and City Manager Jim Patrick, Human Resources Director Terry Mitton and City Attorney Charles Harball, representing Kalispell. If the union is dissatisfied with the city’s final employment contract offer at that point and negotiations hit an impasse, a vote to strike becomes appropriate.
The ongoing labor dispute between the city of Kalispell and the union representing its employees has two primary bones of contention. The first involves a disagreement over 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 10 cents – up from 5 cents – on their hourly wage for every year employed. The union says the clause allows the 10 cents to apply for every year of employment, while the city says the 10-cent rate would kick in when the new contract begins. That difference would cost the city $147,000, according to Patrick.
But an equally prickly issue concerns Kalispell city employees’ low wages. Both sides acknowledge that Kalispell pays its workers less than equivalent positions in Flathead County, the private sector or some other cities in the valley.
“We’ve never disputed the fact that their wages are lower,” Mitton said. “But it’s something that’s not going to be fixed over one contract.” Mitton added that it will take several years and multiple contract negotiations to bring Kalispell city employee pay within range of county or private employees.
Comparing wages among Flathead County workers and other cities in the valley, Kalispell’s employees are paid less in many instances. A salary survey compiled last year by Flathead County confirms this.
An equipment mechanic responsible for maintaining vehicles makes $21.29 per hour for the city of Whitefish. Flathead County pays the equivalent position $18.93. At Kalispell, the hourly wage is $14.91 for a mechanic. According to the same survey, Flathead County pays a heavy equipment operator $17.98 an hour, while Whitefish pays between $14.23 and $23.69.
But Kalispell’s wages aren’t lowest across the board. A Kalispell city custodian makes an hourly wage of $14.31, where it is a union job. In Flathead County, where it’s not, a custodian makes between $9.44 and $10.55, and Whitefish pays $13.45.
It’s unclear why Kalispell’s wages trend lower. Historically, Mitton said, the local union has not pushed for more substantial wage increases as aggressively as the county and surrounding cities.
“It’s a rate that they negotiated long before I came to work here,” Mitton said.
Twardoski said the wide variety of people encompassed by the local chapter – everyone from dispatchers to clerical assistants to public works employees – has made it difficult to present a unified front in prior contract negotiations. In the past, after receiving the city’s final offer, at the moment when the union must decide whether to strike or sign on the dotted line, city employees have disagreed over what they’re willing to accept. Sick and tired of prolonged negotiations and infighting, Kalispell city employees would always buckle and accept the smaller raises, Twardoski said, but this time something is different.
City employees don’t expect to make up the pay disparity in the current negotiations.
“We’ve got a lot of catching up to do and we don’t expect to get it all at once,” Twardoski said, but added that the relatively small number of city employees who marched outside City Hall last week belies the anger and determination of city employees over the stalled negotiations.
“These guys are ready to strike,” he said. “They’re mad; the city has messed with them and they’re upset.”
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