Union explains stand on concessions

Union members believe they have already made enough sacrifices.

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WALLA WALLA - Representatives of the city's largest employee union said they needed to set the record straight regarding concessions they refused to make to help the city out in the current city budget crisis.

In an article published Feb. 13 in the Union-Bulletin, it was reported that recently approved contracts with both city and fire unions had members agreeing to give up matching deferred compensation, salary increases and the vacation buy-back program for 2011 and 2012.

It was also noted that the members of AFSCME Local 1191W, who are in the middle of a four-year contract, would not be making the same concessions.

In an interview with union representatives Alpha O'Laughlin and union President Gary Goodwin, both said that last fall the city asked 1191W members to make similar concessions. But the representative added that members overwhelmingly felt they had already given up too much in previous years, especially when compared to police and fire unions.

"We have given up more than anyone in the city, and we did care. And that is why we volunteered to do this insurance for the city," Goodwin said, noting that in January, members of 1191W voted to approve allowing the city to switch insurance plans to help save funds.

But three months earlier, when Goodwin called for a vote on giving up deferred compensation and step increases, members overwhelmingly voted no.

The reason, O'Laughlin said, was because in 2009, when cost-of-living indexes were coming in around 5 percent for the previous year, city employees received no pay raise because they were then negotiating their current four-year contract.

O'Laughlin said both sides had agreed to a new cost-of-living study. But that study wasn't completed until 2009, which resulted in delaying the negotiations.

"The bottom line is the city said we are not going to look at 2009 wages until we complete this compensation study. We had a commitment that it would be done by 2008, and it was almost the spring of 2009 when it was completed," O'Laughlin added.

When negotiations did resume, O'Laughlin said city officials made it clear they would not do any cost-of-living adjustment for 2009.

That same year, Police Guild members received salary increases of 7.1 percent and firefighter union members received a 5 percent increase.

Then in 2010, when cost-of-living indexes were in minus figures across the state and nation, members of Local 1191W took a 2.4 percent cut in salary, which was written in their contract.

According to O'Laughlin, 1191W was the only city, county or state employee union in Washington state to receive a minus adjustment.

That same year, members of the Walla Walla Police Guild received a 4 percent salary increase, with sergeants receiving an additional 2.5 percent. And firefighters received a 2 percent increase.

O'Laughlin and Goodwin explained that this was the main reason union members voted against giving up deferred compensation and step salary increases for 2011 and 2012, which City Manager Nabiel Shawa had requested they do to help offset a then $1.7 million deficit for each year.

O'Laughlin added that accepting the concessions would have been a financial hardship, considering that members' pay scales had dropped to those of four years previous.

"People don't realize that if they think about it, almost everybody in this union is now working at 2007 wages," Goodwin added.

The union members did vote in favor of suspending their vacation buy back through 2012, but only if the city would agree to put in a negative cap of zero, should the cost-of-living index go into minus figures again.

That offer was rejected by the city. And in a letter dated Dec. 8, 2010, Shawa thanked the union for the offer, but wrote the city had "no interest at this time in opening the current contract and amending the negotiated salary conditions."

Under the current 1191W contract, salary adjustments are based on a cost-of-living index from the preceding fiscal year from July 1 to June 30.

O'Laughlin also said the 2009-2010 fiscal year index came in at 0.7 percent, therefore members of 1191W were given a contractual 0.7 salary increase for this year.

The city currently employs 108 members of 1191W, 45 union firefighters, 41 Walla Walla Police Guild members, and 62 non-represented staff and directors.

In a response, Walla Walla Human Resource Manager Jennifer Seekamp said, "We acknowledge and appreciate the willingness of 1191W members in moving to a new health insurance plan. While there are some differences in the interpretation of the past, the city is not going to debate these in the media. We appreciate the efforts that all city employees have made during these difficult times and are looking forward to the future."

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