ELKHART — A union representing 150 City of Elkhart employees claims the city administration is engaging in union-busting methods.
Meanwhile, the city’s lead negotiator and the City Council president claim the employees are trying to get out of working a 40-hour week.
“My understanding is that (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) doesn’t want to work a 40-hour workweek, which I thought was a bit surprising,” said Council President Brian Dickerson, R-at large.
But David Robertson, the executive director for AFSCME Council 962, covering Indiana and Kentucky, said that is not an accurate portrayal of the negotiations.
“That’s absolutely not true at all,” he said.
Dickerson’s claim, Robertson said, is a misrepresentation of how the city wants to take away AFSCME members’ two paid 15-minute breaks per day, which, according to Robertson, are the only breaks the employees get.
The city’s lead negotiator, Board of Public Works vice-president Carol McDowell Loshbough, said that means AFSCME members work 37.5 hours a week.
“We believe that the citizens of Elkhart deserve 40 hours a week. We also believe that it is a standard operating procedure in most corporations today,” said McDowell.
According to Anderson, there’s a valid reason that AFSCME members get their breaks paid.
“City workers rarely get an actual lunch break due to always being on call. They might stop quickly to grab a sandwich, but right back to work. If a tree falls in our city, then they need to be there,” he said. “The list goes on and on.”
City Councilman Dwight Fish, D-4, asked what AFSCME members would get in return if they were to give up the paid breaks.
“How is a person supposed to be compensated? Are they supposed to work more hours for less pay? More hours without as many breaks?” he said.
Dickerson said that the City Council and McDowell have good relationships with the three other unions that represent city employee’s, namely, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the Fraternal Brotherhood of Police and the International Association of Fire Fighters. Contract negotiations for those unions have been completed, with no raises.
Negotiations between the city and AFSCME are currently on standby. A mediation meeting has been scheduled for Oct. 11. That is something that Robertson said McDowell has threatened since the very beginning of this year’s negotiations.
According to Dickerson, mediation is only necessary because, in his view, AFSCME is not negotiating in good faith.
“I don’t believe mediation would be necessary if both parties would be reasonable,” he said.
McDowell said she can’t see the problem in including a mediator when the negotiations are not moving forward.
“That isn’t a threat and it isn’t union-busting. Mediators are used all over the world all the time to try to get parties to come to agreement,” she said.
But Fish said that is not so. In his view, Indiana labor laws favor employers.
“Mediation is just a quick and simple way to get somebody else to say that the union is not representing their side of things well, and then they’ll just go for decertification,” he said.
That would mean that AFSCME could no longer negotiate on behalf of city employees.
“And that’s what the city wants, that’s what the mayor wants,” said Fish. “We have anti-union people, we have anti-labor people that are running this city.”
Robertson criticized both McDowell and Dickerson, saying that they don’t entirely know what is going on.
“I guess I’m confused on why Mr. Dickerson’s quoting something that he has probably no understanding of what’s going on at the table,” Robertson said.
He also said the McDowell “doesn’t understand how the city runs.”
Some city employees have requested leaving AFSCME, according to Dickerson because they feel poorly represented. Robertson said that those employees were prompted to leave by the city administration.
“Janus (v. AFSCME, a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court case) has already made that decision that folks can get in or out of the union whenever they would like, not that they should be overseen to do it or prompted to do it,” Robertson said.
He is criticizing McDowell for attempting to include a requirement that AFSCME members have to check a box every year to continue being members of the union.
“It’s honestly a union-busting tactic,” Robertson said.
But Robertson’s claim misrepresents the truth, according to McDowell. What the city wants to include in the employment status form is that union membership dues can be taken directly from a union member’s paycheck, she said.
“It doesn’t say ‘Are you OK with being a member of the union?’ It says ‘Are you OK with us removing union dues from your paycheck?’” McDowell said.
Fish said that taking money out of employees’ paychecks to pay unions dues is not the city’s job.
AFSCME members received a 6 percent raise in the 2018 negotiations, which did not get approved by City Council until Dec. 27. This year, Robertson said, the disagreement is not about salary. However, McDowell said AFSCME wants year-round specialty pay for employees currently would only get specialty pay during the time of the year that they have to perform special duties.
‘Mouthpiece’ for the mayor
Fish said McDowell and Dickerson are trying to “shut down the union.”
“They want to break a union, that’s all,” he said.
Fish claimed that other unions in the city get just about everything they want, and that the city is picking on AFSCME. He called McDowell a mouthpiece for Mayor Tim Neese, a Republican.
In recent weeks, AFSCME has made public claims that McDowell has bullied city employees by screaming at, belittling and threatening them. McDowell has denied those claims, which were posted on 250 yard signs around the city as well as social media.
Neese has since written a letter to Robertson, asking AFSCME to end the campaign.
“These actions are counterproductive and are creating divisions where we should be building consensus,” Neese wrote.
Fish, however, supports AFSCME’s campaign. He said it is a fair representation of the city’s negotiator.
“Carol has been a very toxic person for a long time,” he said.
He said that people are afraid to come forward and say so.
“I think Carol needs to not make it about Carol,” he said. “I think Carol needs to understand that there’s people’s lives and families at stake, and it’s not her show.”
The mayor said that a new contract can only be achieved if AFSCME terminates the campaign against McDowell and returns to the bargaining table and both sides engage in good-faith negotiations.
Follow Rasmus S. Jorgensen on Twitter at @ReadRasmus