Ten months after taking office, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke signed a new agreement with the public services workers union that proponents say will offer employees a bigger voice in city affairs, though one city councilman expressed worries.
"My biggest concern...is we're going to be funding at taxpayer expense 600 hours of paid time for certain stewards to go to conventions and conferences and training classes and to make representations," said Councilman Larry Grohn. "I think that's inappropriate."
But, Doug Collier, president of Local 205 of the Service Employees International Union, said the new agreement is more inclusive when it comes to city workers.
"It's an opportunity to voice their opinion and help exercise policies," said Collier, who thinks the new agreement will spur its membership "in the long haul."
SEIU currently represents 210 of the city's 2,686 workers.
Travis McDonough, the mayor's chief of staff, said the administration wants employee input when there are changes which affect them, and the new agreement helps do that.
"It's the same approach we take with any employee, whether they're a union member or not," he said.
The new memorandum of understanding, which is nonbinding, follows one signed in 2007 by former Mayor Ron Littlefield.
The new accord appears to broaden employee engagement in wage and personnel decisions. For example, the agreement says that any organizational-wide pay increase or benefit change will not be proposed by the city without the parties having an opportunity to meet and confer as early as possible at the beginning of the budget cycle.
Also, it says the city will not propose changes to the city's personnel policies without first providing notice to the union.
The new agreement comes nearly a year after Berke took office and reorganized City Hall, where he reassigned dozens of city workers after he eliminated three departments. The Parks and Recreation Department was one of the three departments eliminated and city officials said 75 employees were reassigned to Public Works.
Stephen West, trustee with the local SEIU chapter, said if the agreement had been made when Berke took office, unionized workers would have had more rights and the city would have been required to list the reasons for any reassignments.
Grohn said he particularly objects to a policy that allocates the 600 hours of release time, and up to 200 for a single employee, with pay each calendar year to be allocated by the union among its lead steward and listed stewards for conventions, training or work site meetings. The agreement also said the union is allowed to hold meetings with employees before or after regular working hours and during breaks and lunch at the work site.
"There are some cases when union representation is necessary, but I tend to balk...when it deals with union representation of public sector employees in terms of salary and benefits," he said.
Grohn, who said he wasn't informed about the agreement until it became public, added he has heard that a national anti-union group is looking at the agreement, though he's not sure what it could do about it.
The new agreement was signed Feb. 12, and Berke spokeswoman Lacie Stone said this agreement gives nonsupervising employees more representation.
Some of the specifics in the agreement generally follow what was already permitted, such as the recognition of union stewards and the right to join or not join the union. Stone said the manner unionized employees pay dues is the same as well.
She said the previous agreement expired when the old administration left office. The new memorandum was signed with a number of City Council members present as well as SEIU members and representatives, Stone said.
Collier said the agreement essentially is no different than others it has in the state, including Nashville.
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