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Publication Date: Wednesday, August 27, 2003

Editorial: Managers' unionizing comes as no surprise Editorial: Managers' unionizing comes as no surprise (August 27, 2003)

Beset by mandatory furloughs, no raises and cuts in benefits, Palo Alto professionals try out a blue-collar approach: unionize

Given the allegations in Palo Alto of "overpaid" city management and "bloat" in the number of City Hall employees, it should be no surprise that the managers and professionals have begun to think defensively.

They have begun the process of forming a union chapter, the "Palo Alto Managers & Professionals' Association," part of the Professional & Technical Engineers, Local 21, AFL-CIO.

Sign-up cards are now being circulated among the estimated 267 employees who would be covered -- virtually everyone not already represented by either the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) or the unions representing police and fire departments. It may take until October to know the outcome of meetings of up to 15 or 16 employees being held at the Hyatt Cabana. The goal is 150 signed, confidential union-authorization cards. A majority of the 267-employee group would create an "agency" shop, where even those who don't sign up would pay a portion of the regular union dues to cover costs of representation and negotiation. Sign-ups have reportedly passed the one-third mark of those needed.

The only surprise is why it has taken this group of employees -- the only group unprotected by union contract -- so long to take action. The managers and professionals are the vital core of city operations, those who supervise the daily running of the city and its many departments. The category includes many loyal and able mid-level management staff who now face a decision most never thought they would face as professionals.

This is a human-resources problem of the first magnitude.

The roots of concern go back several years, when some managers felt a committee set up by former City Manager June Fleming was too hand-picked to properly represent their views to the City Council.

It now appears that neither current City Manager Frank Benest nor the City Council have been able to improve matters.

Managers, supervisors and other mid-level professionals felt stung by recent criticisms that they are getting paid too much and that City Hall is "bloated." Members of the public clearly have the right, and responsibility, to monitor and criticize government growth. But such criticisms, regardless of their merit, create significant levels of anxiety among staff members.

The implicit demand is that both pay and numbers of staff should be cut. The divided City Council has been slow and tepid in responding to the public focus and criticisms, further leaving the mid-level staff feeling vulnerable and exposed.

And for good cause, it now seems: (1) Effective July 1, manager/professional staff members were ordered to take three unpaid "furlough" days over the next two years, resulting in a 1 percent salary cut; (2) they were told recently they would get no raise this year, instead of the city's tradition of giving them the same pay raise negotiated for SEIU-covered employees; and (3) they faced what they term "drastic changes" in health and retirement medical benefits under a draft compensation plan -- without defining drastic.

The five employees spearheading the organizing effort are all respected members of the city staff: Greg Betts of open space & sciences; Kathy Espinoza-Howard, director of human services; Leon Kaplan, director of arts & culture; Michael Rogers, supervisor of water-gas-waste; and Rose Sebastian, library supervisor.

The organizing effort, thus far, must go down as one of the most courteous in the history of labor organizing. But the concerns, though softly worded, are clear:

"Many of us have expressed concerns about our future," the five organizers said in a letter to colleagues. "We chose to work for the City of Palo Alto because of our interest in public service and the City's commitment to its employees and the community.

"We are concerned about changes that are taking place in City administration under the premise of fiscal constraint. Over the last several months, we found ourselves having to rely upon rumor and working in an unacceptable culture of secrecy."

Kaplan said he understands the budget constraints faced by the manager and council, and sees the union as "the fairest way to make our concerns known to the council." Sebastian said she believes other managers and professionals will be "disappointed that we had to do this."

That's our sense, too. Given today's economy, city budget, community and council divisions and management climate, this move to unionize is regrettable but understandable.


 

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