Shorter contracts the trend for union city employees

If uncertainty were a line item, many Minnesota city budgets would list it. As for quantifying it? One partial measure is the number of mediation cases taken on by the tiny state agency, the Bureau of Mediation Services (BMS). From July 1, 2009 to June 30, 2010 the BMS saw a doubling of its caseload of new public sector contract negotiations, from 69 cases to 139. BMS Commissioner Steve Hoffmeyer says one-year contracts are driving that increase.

We are historic levels because we have to mediate one year contracts in addition to our normal caseload.

Hoffmeyer says that neither the unions nor the cities want to lock in agreements that are not going to be financially workable. He adds the sticking points in most cases appear to be health care costs.

As for renegotiating union contracts, fewer cities appear to be taking that route, though it is happening. Mankato would like to freeze wage costs. City manager Pat Hentges says even with wage freezes and a modest tax increase, the city might still have to cut staff by 2 percent. City employees’ current contract calls for a 2.5 percent wage increase in 2011, though many union employees will have to pay more for health insurance.

In outstate Minnesota, many of the unionized city employees are law enforcement personnel. Most of them are represented by Law Enforcement Labor Services, Inc (LELS). Chief executive officer Dan Wells says though still small, the number of requests to re-open contracts is nevertheless notable.

Even in 2003 we didn’t see the requests for re-opening of contracts that we are seeing today. City and counties are hurting and that’s why we’re seeing it at all.

LELS represents around 6,000 law enforcement personnel around the state. He says they may have to take a zero percent increase in future contracts. The union will work to strengthen language in contracts that protects seniority benefits, such as priority when bidding for shifts.

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