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.