News


Palo Alto Utilities managers form bargaining unit

Palo Alto's newest labor group includes 45 members of Utilities Department

Palo Alto's utility managers have formed a new employee association that they hope will strengthen their bargaining power in negotiations with city management.

The group, called the Utilities Management Professionals Association of Palo Alto (UMPAPA), includes 45 managers from City of Palo Alto Utilities, said Russ Kamiyama, manager of the city's electric operations. The group's formation was opposed by city management but was enabled by a decision from an arbitrator in April.

Kamiyama said the utilities managers have been trying to form their own bargaining unit since at least 2008. Most managers and professionals (with some exceptions in Police and Fire departments) currently don't belong to any labor unions and have their compensation approved by the City Council every year. Kamiyama said the setup made it difficult for managers within particular departments to make their voices heard during negotiations.

At that time, various members of the managers and professionals group considered joining established unions, most notably the Teamsters, but these efforts faltered because of a lack of consensus. In October 2009, a group of senior managers in the Police Department broke apart from the managers group to form their own union, the Palo Alto Police Managers Association.

The utilities managers tried to take a similar approach. In November 2009, the 45 managers filed a petition with the city seeking to create their own bargaining unit, Kamiyama said. The city rejected the petition the following month, arguing that the proposed unit is not the "broadest feasible grouping." The main dispute was over whether managers in the Utilities Department should be treated the same way as managers in other departments. Members of UMPAPA felt their skills and function set them apart from other managers in the organization, according to the petition.

The utilities group, the petition states, "functions as a utilities business unit separate and distinct from other city business."

"The management and execution of the successful delivery of water, gas, wastewater, electric and telecommunications products is very different than the normal City of Palo Alto government business of providing information, planning, permits, protection and recreational outlets," the petition stated.

Interim Human Resources Director Sandra Blanch said the city's stance was essentially that the managers in the Utilities Department should be considered in the same way as their counterparts in other departments.

"The city's position is that we have other managers who perform similar duties," Blanch said. "So in the city's opinion, we didn't feel that this was a feasible grouping of classification."

The two sides tried to settle the matter in mediation last year, Blanch said. When the mediator couldn't make a finding about the feasibility of the new group, the argument was referred to arbitration. In April, arbitrator John Kagel ruled in the utilities managers' favor, recognizing them as an appropriate bargaining unit.

In his ruling, Kagel wrote that the utility managers constitute an "internal community of interest" that sets them apart from other managers. Furthermore, Kagel found that the city's Utilities Department, which provides electric, gas, water and fiber services, is "unique compared to all other municipalities in the state."

Though Kagel referred to the new group as a "union" in his decision, Kamiyama said the managers consider it an "association." He said the group's focus is narrower than a typical union's in that it focuses almost exclusively on compensation -- not on broader workplace issues such as grievances.

"We won't bring frivolous lawsuits against the city, and it's not our intention to tie the city in red tape," Kamiyama said. "We're simply looking for a way and means to represent ourselves."

The salaries of utilities managers currently range from about $100,000 to about $185,000, according to data from the Administrative Services Department. Though their salaries are generally higher than those of other managers, they are lower than those of their peers in investor-owned utilities such as PG&E, according to utilities officials.

At last week's discussion of the Utilities Department's proposed Strategic Plan, the City Council Finance Committee discussed with staff the idea of including a clause in the plan calling for provision of "sufficient salaries" for employees. At that meeting, Utilities Director Valerie Fong told the committee that one of the department's greatest challenges these days is retaining employees. She said the department has seen a wave of retirements and has been forced to ask some of the retired managers to come back and help train new employees.

"You'd be surprised at how uncompetitive some of the salaries are within utilities," Fong told the committee at the June 7 meeting.

Comments

Like this comment
Posted by mary
a resident of College Terrace
on Jun 17, 2011 at 11:00 pm

This is great news!


Like this comment
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 18, 2011 at 11:43 am

What a bizarre idea-- managers making $100-$185K forming a union. And, with 45 "managers", how many total employees are there in the department? In yesteryear, typically the ratio of managers to managees was 7:1.


Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Jun 18, 2011 at 12:23 pm

"What a bizarre idea-- managers making $100-$185K forming a union."

One reason workers form unions is because they feel threatened - if so then I take this as a good sign that they are finally getting the message.


Like this comment
Posted by DeAngelo
a resident of College Terrace
on Jun 18, 2011 at 3:34 pm

If any member of the bloated utilities "management" crew feels underpaid, they should go get one of the private sector jobs they are citing as evidence of their own underpayment.

What we're seeing here is an attempt by a bunch of bureaucrats to spike their own compensation without giving up the cushy, light-on-accountability existence and gold-plated retirement and health benefits that the public sector is offering them.

PA should call this bluff. We should be thinning out our management ranks and getting rid of the considerable deadweight, not appeasing the current crew.


Like this comment
Posted by Sonny
a resident of College Terrace
on Jun 18, 2011 at 5:34 pm

I went to the CineArts Theater on El Camino today and noticed a sign on the window that said they had no water in their restrooms because the City of Palo Alto Water Department had shut off the water in the entire area. However, the city did provide Porta Pottys somewhere between buildings 3 and 4. The problem was somewhere on Page Mill Road and Porter Drive! I say give them all a raise and a pat on the back. They are doing one heck of a job. Boy, if they can't isolate a problem better than shutting down an entire business district then, let's face it, there is no comparison between public and private sector utilities; therefore, salaries between the two are not comparable. What you have in Palo Alto are politicians and lifelong bureaucrats trying to run a business. It will never happen. and now they are forming an "association". Please, get real. It's 2011.


Like this comment
Posted by Sonny
a resident of College Terrace
on Jun 18, 2011 at 5:34 pm

I went to the CineArts Theater on El Camino today and noticed a sign on the window that said they had no water in their restrooms because the City of Palo Alto Water Department had shut off the water in the entire area. However, the city did provide Porta Pottys somewhere between buildings 3 and 4. The problem was somewhere on Page Mill Road and Porter Drive! I say give them all a raise and a pat on the back. They are doing one heck of a job. Boy, if they can't isolate a problem better than shutting down an entire business district then, let's face it, there is no comparison between public and private sector utilities; therefore, salaries between the two are not comparable. What you have in Palo Alto are politicians and lifelong bureaucrats trying to run a business. It will never happen. and now they are forming an "association". Please, get real. It's 2011.


Like this comment
Posted by Outside Observer
a resident of another community
on Jun 18, 2011 at 8:05 pm

It may not be a good idea to mess with PA Utilities.

Remember San Bruno.


Like this comment
Posted by mess
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jun 18, 2011 at 8:50 pm

Yes, that's right, we should provide $500,000 bonuses to all utilities employees, so that they don't blow us up. If they ask more, we pay that also.


Like this comment
Posted by Toady
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 19, 2011 at 9:46 am

Time to Wisconsin-style.

Unions could have a place in the private sector, where abuses by unions are curbed by market realities (unions know that companies can go out of business).

Unions and public sector? Sounds very Greek to me.


Like this comment
Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 19, 2011 at 11:24 am

The following letter was sent to the City Council, linking salaries and pensions for the PAU Managers--

Web Link

Pensions for these managers are so lucrative, that all will become multimillionaires in retirement--most making more than twice what they earned as retirees over what they earned as employees.


Like this comment
Posted by Alfred E Newman
a resident of Atherton
on Jun 19, 2011 at 12:12 pm

Toady: "Unions and public sector? Sounds very Greek to me."

Sorry, despite my gyros consumption, I'm not an expert on Greek. But to me, it sounds very Reagan.

"where free unions and collective bargaining are forbidden, freedom is lost." Ronald Reagan, Labor Day, 1980.

Reagan granted California’s municipal and county employees the right to collectively bargain in 1968 by signing the Meyers Milias Brown Act.

Reagan is our only President who has been a union member. In fact he was once the president of an AFL/CIO affiliate.

But who knew he was Greek?

btw: be careful what you wish for, Walker ignited a movement in WI. Look at the six recalls, be an interesting summer.


Like this comment
Posted by pat
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 19, 2011 at 12:26 pm

You gotta love the way the city sets up its negotiating position for bargaining with this new union/association:

(1) Valerie Fong says, "You'd be surprised at how uncompetitive some of the salaries are within utilities."

(2)0 ‘… the City Council Finance Committee discussed with staff the idea of including a clause in the [Strategic] plan calling for provision of "sufficient salaries" for employees.’

The Utilities Strategic Plan is at: Web Link

Page 6 People and Technology Perspective
“PT1. Be an attractive place to work: We will create a positive values-based work environment which attracts and retains qualified staff. To achieve this objective we will try to better understand employees desires, work with City management to establish sufficient compensation, benefits, and incentives, and will articulate our values both internally and as we recruit.”

I wonder who gets to decide “sufficient” compensation, benefits and incentives.

How long will it be before all the other city managers form a bargaining unit?


Like this comment
Posted by Toady
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 19, 2011 at 3:45 pm

" I'm not an expert on Greek."

Someone really doesn't know his/her current events these days, eh?

Maybe you should actually read the front page of the paper instead of the just the funnies. Or read something other than HuffPo and Daily Koz. You might actually know what's going on in the world.


Like this comment
Posted by RT
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 20, 2011 at 11:40 am

I guess I just don't understand....
If the salaries (and lucrative pensions) are not comparable with the private sector, then why aren't City employees leaving to join the private sector. The Market works - if employees start a exodus to the private sector, then the City Council would have to raise salaries.
Therefore, it seems to me the sole reason for this "association" is maintain salaries/benefits in excess of those in the private sector.


Like this comment
Posted by Hugh Satterlee
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 20, 2011 at 3:28 pm

Whatever happened to "Civil Service Commissions"? These were setup long ago to protect employees from maltreatment of all kinds, including low pay. "Unions" or "associations" pit unions against the people. Let's not do this anymore. The City of Palo Alto is in financial trouble because of the cozy agreements between city management and the unions. The taxpaying public does not have a voice, and that is wrong.

Hugh Satterlee


Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Jun 20, 2011 at 3:44 pm

The Public Employment Relations Board (PERB or Board) is a quasi-judicial administrative agency charged with administering the collective bargaining statutes covering employees of California's public schools, colleges, and universities, employees of the State of California, employees of California local public agencies (cities, counties and special districts), trial court employees and supervisory employees of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.


Like this comment
Posted by jardins
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 21, 2011 at 12:25 am

1. There shouldn't be anything like 45 managers, for goodness sake.

2. Palo Alto residents should not have to meet the $$ demands of a union of all those people--they're already paid more than they should be. And their retirement benefits are excessive.

3. The Utilities Dept. used to operate for the benefit of Palo Alto's residents--it was established as an entity independent of PG&E decades ago so that our rates for utilities would be lower than what residents of other cities pay. These days we're paying more than residents of neighboring cities--especially for water. I feel that we're being held hostage--they know we can't do without the things that they "provide."


Like this comment
Posted by Dan
a resident of Southgate
on Jun 21, 2011 at 12:49 pm

Maybe its time the citizens of Palo Alto formed a union. If the citizens objected to:
-$400k on consultants for neighbor's electricity usage comparison
-rates the go up 15% a year, consistently
-negotiating a minimum garbage tonnage that is above what we produce, and sticking the citizens with the bill

... then the citizens could go on strike and not pay their bills. Then these "buisiness unit mangers" would really have a chance to show off their business skills.


Like this comment
Posted by any member name hah
a resident of South of Midtown
on Jun 21, 2011 at 2:10 pm

SEIU employees at City of Palo Alto have born the major burden of the city budget, or lack thereof over the past eight years. They have been attacked such that someone last year, who made $55K a year, now makes $47K due to increased payments coming out of one's check to pay for medical and retirement plans. That’s a hard hit for single income homes. So I would imagine City Manager realizes SEIU workers cannot bear anymore of the financial budget problems and now it is time to look at management, PD and Fire. Since the PD and Fire unions are MUCH MORE STRONGER than SEIU (which has all but stopped supporting City worker bees while they still collect union dues), this will become a political issue as opposed to a budget issue. Ironically, the Palo Alto chapter chair for SEIU is actually one of the highest paid utility department workers who represents several hundred lower paid non-utility department workers. Can this person wholeheartedly REALLY look out for non-utility department worker bees?

Managers have seen the writing on the wall that they would be the next group to be attacked by City Manager since they cannot get their hands around PD and Fire employees/unions. Managers have the right to unionize. It is what it is, yet I am dumbfounded how many of the upper, middle, and low level Utliities Managers are not qualified to fill their own positions. They have 'risen to the top' due to who they know and not what they know – and the popularity contest continues to this very day. There is such an unnecessary multi-layered reporting structure, managers give an unintelligent directive which trickles down to the worker bee who questions the task based on their experience and knowledge of the rules and regulations. When it is sent back up the reporting structure, it turns into a HUGE PROBLEM because this is when the manager's are held accountable, which they are not and cannot since they don't know the integral basics of utilities, internal chaos begins, nothing gets done, all on taxpayers’ dollars. Mangers don’t care to solve problems, nor can half of them begin to analyze the problem to get a fast, safe resolution. As long as they get their high salaries life goes happily on for them because now they are protected. What happens if utility management goes on strike? Basically nothing because the field workers can (and have been) keeping the infrastructure up and running for years.

So it is not surprising that utilities managers unionized. Now they will have protection for their lack of accountability and they can protect those HUGE salaries they are not qualified to receive. Actually that in itself is smart - greedy and disgustingly smart.

Since the utilities department is revenue generating special enterprise fund, money cannot be legally transferred to the general fund where the real budget problems lie. So now you will see a new internal fight: Unionized utility managers getting better deals than non-utility department managers.

To the Citizens of Palo Alto, get ready to pay higher fees for sewer, gas, water, and electricity. Oh you will be told is it due to 'these bad economic times', of which it is partially true, but it is also primarily due to utilities management lack of accountability, which leads to mismanaged public funds resultant in deteriorated infrastructure.

Hey! - all those underground pipes and wires, …....out of sight, out of mind so who really cares. If the citizens can’t see them and don’t know they are in desperate need of replacement, let us just continue patching like we have been all along. They’ll never know. When we do figure out how to fix, upgrade the various systems, we will just charge it back to the citizens via higher utility bills.

That’s the Palo Alto way overall! Good luck to us all!!


Like this comment
Posted by any member name hah
a resident of South of Midtown
on Jun 21, 2011 at 2:29 pm

"Posted by Hugh Satterlee, a resident of the Old Palo Alto neighborhood, 22 hours ago

......The taxpaying public does not have a voice, and that is wrong."

Actually Hugh Satterlee, this is America, the public DOES have a voice and could ultimately be the beginning of this huge problem. Citizens vote for Council Members who do not understand the utilities department let alone the integral running of one. When Council asks questions they are are fed a line of intelligent, empty word-smithed BS. Council then smiles, nods their heads ah-hah oh ok and accept it for what it is not - the truth.

You are a citizen. You have the right to vote. You can vote in council member(s) who do understand utlity infrastructure. Politics is so un-sexy, so boring, so bland. Palo Alto citizens get what they vote for.


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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