The relationship between the city of Akron and its unions took a different turn as fall contract talks loomed, both sides looking to end the prolonged, bitter confrontations of recent years. Last week came welcome news of the payoff: Tentative agreements had been reached between the city and its four unions. This week, details emerged, along with an unprecedented 98 percent approval by the police union.
The willingness of union leaders and Mayor Don Plusquellic to work together was crucial to the success of the more cooperative style of collective bargaining. In six weeks of closed-door meetings, the union leaders and the mayor came up with focused, innovative agreements that recognized difficult economic times and avoided bringing in third parties to settle disputes.
First, the presidents of the four unions, police, fire, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the Civil Service Personnel Association (CSPA), decided to approach the city, seeking contract extensions or a bargaining process limited to just a few issues, such as wages and health care.
Plusquellic rightly embraced the concept, the city’s chief negotiator, Patty Ambrose Rubright, calling the mayor “the major facilitator” on the city’s side. Rubright initially had expressed skepticism the new process could work.
The two sides then focused on wages only, agreeing on increases of 2 percent in 2013 and 1 percent in both 2014 and 2015. In what may be a first for Ohio cities, a bonus plan was devised, with the possibility of two lump-sum payments of up to 2 percent in the final two years of the contract, the amount pegged to city income tax collections. In other words, if the city is doing well, its unions will benefit. If not, no bonuses.
On health care, a big expense, a Labor Management Health Care Committee will make suggestions on how to save on health care, although it will not have the power to change union contracts. Still, the formation of the committee signals a willingness to pursue further contract innovations.
With the other city unions set to finish voting by Tuesday, the labor agreements will then go to the City Council for approval. The overwhelming vote by the police union has set a positive example, moving the process forward.
Instead of fighting over limited resources, essentially a zero-sum game in which a win by one union often means cuts elsewhere, labor leaders plan to work with the city, lobbying state lawmakers to reverse budget cuts to local goverment funds. Such a joint effort would be another welcome change from past head-butting and a reminder to legislators of the hollowness of balancing the state budget on the backs of cities and school districts.