News-Miner opinion: The city of Fairbanks has gotten itself into a pickle. A labor contract with the city’s public safety union was passed last year, then later rescinded by the City Council. Now the state Labor Relations Agency’s board has found the city’s actions violated rules against unfair labor practices and ordered the contract go into effect as originally negotiated. It’s a fiasco that is likely to mean added costs for the city and its residents — and it’s entirely of the council’s own making.
In late summer 2014, the Public Safety Employees Association, which represents the police officers and other personnel associated with the Fairbanks Police Department, came to an agreement with the city on terms for a new three-year contract. The terms were strong for the union — a 10 percent pay raise, a one-time retroactive payment of $1,750 and an additional $250 monthly health contribution per member. Work weeks would be reduced from 40 to 36 hours per week, and members of more than 10 years would have leave increased from 240 to 300 hours per year.
The measure came before the Fairbanks City Council for a vote. After vigorous discussion, the contract passed 4-3 — the six members of the council were split evenly, so Mayor John Eberhart cast the deciding vote. Two days later, Councilman Jim Matherly, who had supported the contract’s passage in the initial vote, filed for reconsideration. Had he filed a day earlier, the city would not be in its current position today.
But the city’s rules clearly state reconsideration requests must come within a day after the vote. So the council voted to suspend its rules and revote on the contract anyway, whereupon it was rejected unanimously. The union lodged a complaint of unfair labor practices almost immediately.
In a Community Perspective penned for the News-Miner, councilman Matherly explained his decision to opt for reconsideration as being motivated by a desire for more fiscal responsibility. There’s no reason to doubt this was the case. Several who spoke against the contract in its initial form before it was passed spoke specifically about the shift in the work week from 40 to 36 hours. They said it would increase the potential for overtime pay, making it a short of shadow pay increase for public safety employees.
But there was a greater principle the city sacrificed in deciding to suspend its rules and reject the contract despite the fact the window for reconsideration had passed. Doing so sent a signal that the city is willing to change or do away with the rules in order to get what it wants, the essence of negotiating in bad faith. The Alaska Labor Relations Agency recognized this, and rightly decided the city had no right to go back on its decision in the manner that it did.
Though the difference in time from what’s allowable was relatively minor — one extra day — what matters is the violation of the principle, not the extent to which it was violated. The contract may well be a disadvantageous one for the city, but that doesn’t excuse shenanigans after it had passed through the ratification process. City officials and council members had ample time to review and debate the contract before the initial vote. The News-Miner and other media had reported on the major tenets of the contract, particularly the alteration to the work week. Nothing came as a surprise that might have required time for further review.
There’s a saying that “close” only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. It certainly doesn’t count in labor contract negotiations that affect the salaries of the entire police department. The city should abide by the Labor Relations Agency board’s ruling and swallow the medicine it prepared for itself rather than appeal and drag out the process.