David's Blog

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Asking AFSCME to do Better

Last month, the Chamber publicly announced it was willing to go against intuition and experience to offer a new solution to our city’s unfunded retiree health care benefit liability challenge. We recognized how it will take unconventional leadership, along with educated risk-taking and a break from traditional roles, to resolve the city’s financial dilemma. We acknowledged that what got our beloved city into this unfunded retiree liability predicament won’t get us out of it. The Chamber heralded that we are prepared to think and do differently.

Our unnatural response to the city’s Post Employment Healthcare Benefits Task Force recommendation to increase utility fees and property taxes (to help fund the retiree healthcare liability) is to not oppose the increases. Our unprecedented response was our way of being a part of the solution.

In announcing our support of the recommendation, the Chamber was also hopeful that city employees, their union representatives, and city retirees would seek to be part of the solution, as well. At the same time the Chamber announced its support for the task force recommendations, it appealed to city employees, city retirees and their union representatives to bring uncommon leadership to this shared challenge. We knew it would require all of the players involved to do what is unnatural: to transcend old stereotypes and willingly agree to needed contract and benefit concessions.

Our appeal apparently went unnoticed or was disregarded by the city’s largest bargaining group: the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Union leaders representing AFSCME recently informed the mayor of their latest contract demand: an almost 30% pay increase for their members over the next three years.

What a disappointment.

A 30% wage increase demand does not exhibit the union’s readiness to break from its history of fighting employee benefit reductions. Nor does it illustrate a willingness to transcend old union stereotypes. Nor does it convey sensitivity for the ominous financial challenges facing the city.

In contrast, the 30% wage increase demand runs the risk of presenting AFSCME’s union leaders as unrealistic and outdated. Additionally, the demand apparently disregards the task force recommendations that AFSCME previously endorsed. Finally, the wage increase demand should be nothing short of alarming to Duluth tax payers, who fund the city’s operations and pay city employee wages and benefits.

Duluthians should keep a close watch on this critically important union contract negotiation. How AFSCME’s union leaders conduct themselves within these negotiations should be closely scrutinized by every Duluth taxpayer. Let’s hope this initial demand for a 30% wage increase proves to be nothing more than an initial, momentary lapse in good judgment. Let us further hope that it will be followed by the union’s reevaluation of this demand. There is still time for AFSCME to use unconventional leadership to think and do differently.

posted by David Ross at

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