Making a Deal

By Kellyn Brown

The standoff between Kalispell and the firefighters’ union over wages ended in compromise – a surprising resolution to an often-tense negotiating session. Who reaches a “compromise” anymore? That’s so boring.

In February, an arbitrator called in to settle a contract dispute between the two sides ruled in favor of the Local 547 chapter of the International Association of Fire Fighters. The cash-strapped city responded that the financial impact of the decision would result in several layoffs at the Fire Department. From there, the clash escalated.

Neither side could agree with the other’s calculations. City Manager Jane Howington said the department would lose seven firefighters to pay for increased wages and benefits. The firefighter’s union responded forcefully, and negotiations reached a tipping point.

Union leaders called Howington a “bean counter from Ohio” who “failed to do her job.” Kalispell Mayor Tammi Fisher and the majority of council members responded in a letter that said the firemen had sank to an “all-new low” and the personal attacks had resulted in “threats against (Howington’s) personal safety.” Relations between the union and city, it seemed, were beyond repair.

Fliers began landing on neighborhood doorsteps and the campaign to sway public had begun. This is how these negotiations – especially between a union and municipality – are supposed to end these days, with high drama and hurt feelings.

Instead, the firefighters’ union offered concessions that limits how many days they work. Basically, despite a favorable ruling, employees at the department agreed to forgo pay raises so their colleagues could keep their jobs. It’s a rare concept that has worked before.

In late 2008, when the economy began hammering profits across every sector, management at the Troy Mine warned that its 180 employees may lose their jobs if they didn’t work harder, smarter and for less money. And they did.

As mines across the country closed, the one in Troy produced more with less. And about one year later, many of its employees had their pay re-established to previous levels.

There are other examples. Despite cuts to several departments in Kalispell over the last two years, those remaining have had their pay frozen, haven’t complained about it and have continued to provide essential services. That’s not to suggest more cuts won’t be needed, only to point out that the Flathead Valley is not Wisconsin.

Disagreements between Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker and the public employees’ union led to Democratic lawmakers there leaving the state to prevent votes on controversial legislation. Walker was able to pass a bill limiting unions’ collective bargaining rights anyway. A judge will now determine the law’s fate.

When Montana’s union leaders began taking a hard line and making compensation demands late last year, I argued that they should tread lightly. I still think that’s the case, even after the Legislature’s Republican majority ditched an agreement reached between the state’s workers and Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer that would have called for a 4 percent raise for the state’s workers over the next two-year budget period.

The union must now weigh whether a fight over pay raises is worth the black eye it might sustain in public opinion. A lot of those working in the private sector aren’t getting raises and a lot of them are out of work altogether.

Perhaps Republican leaders in Helena can sit down with the employee unions and hammer out a compromise. That’s not such a crazy proposition. Is it?

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