Workers Tell Council: 'It's Our Turn'

AFSCME reps want raise, official recognition, and broader definition of 'public safety'

City workers, represented by the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, marched on City Hall last Thursday to call for a 7% raise, after going two years without a pay increase during the post-9/11 economic downturn.
City workers, represented by the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, marched on City Hall last Thursday to call for a 7% raise, after going two years without a pay increase during the post-9/11 economic downturn. (Photo By Wells Dunbar)

Sewage, that most aromatic of metaphors, kept bubbling up during last Thursday's City Council hearing on the proposed 2006 budget, as members of Austin's local chapter of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees union clogged the pipeline into council chambers. Jeffrey Thornton, a worker with Solid Waste Services, respectfully invited the council to "lace up those boots, [and] get knee-deep in sewage with us." Sub-surface ickiness, the occasional griminess of a city employee's daily grind, and the sometimes literally shitty work the city requires to stay afloat – all were being flung around liberally, as union member after member referred to their brothers as the city's unsung heroes.

Prior to the hearing, the non-public-safety employees – that is, all but police, fire, and EMS – rallied outside City Hall, demanding that the 2006 budget include substantive salary increases. According to AFSCME Vice President Greg Powell, lost in the current debate over spiraling pay for police and fire is the fact that "over the last 10 years, city employee pay and benefits have increased by a meager eight percent. We went two years without pay raises [during budget cutbacks], where we fell seriously behind the market cost of living. And now we kinda got to a point where we can breathe a little bit," said Powell of the proposed budget, described by City Manager Toby Futrell as emphasizing reinvestment after the hardscrabble years of scrimping. "We're coming forward saying it's our turn. Police and fire have been at the front of that trough with their meet-and-confer contracts for a lot of years," said Powell. "We intend to do some catching up."

The centerpiece of Futrell's proposed reinvestment in Austin's workforce is a 3.5% pay-for-performance (that is, based on merit) salary increase, coupled with a one-time 2% bonus. "We're gonna tell her to keep her two-percent bonus," said Powell. "That amounts to $450 take-home pay for the average city of Austin employee. That's supposed to make up for two years of no pay raises? I don't think so." The pay-for-performance boost is also problematic, Powell says, because the measures of improved performance are often arbitrary and intangible. Moreover, fire and police automatically receive an additional 2% "public safety premium" over other departments – the very reason the city says it can't pay more to rank-and-file employees – which "does nothing but increase the gap," said Powell.

The union also objects to what it considers the city's arbitrary definitions of "public safety." "She turns around last year and gives the two-percent public safety premium to EMS employees," said Powell. "We stepped forward and said, you know what? If you're handing out two-percent public safety premiums, because you've got other employees that are involved in public safety jobs, then I got a bunch of electric department crews, hanging from power lines in the middle of electrical storms – that's public safety."

In its own proposals, AFSCME is asking for a 5% market adjustment, "across the board, for all employees," a smaller pay-for-performance increase of 2%, and a raise in the living wage from $10 to $11 an hour – 10 cents higher than the city's proposed $10.90. AFSCME is also asking for city recognition of its local as "the union representing City of Austin employees," which would allow formal "consultation" with the city, replacing the City Manager's Committee on Workplace Issues – dismissed by Powell as "a damn company union." "We are gonna come forward, like a real union, and demand the recognition," he said. AFSCME attorney Craig Deats told the council that the union's proposal for consultation rights doesn't violate Texas' anti-labor laws prohibiting collective bargaining for public employees. That opinion is not necessarily shared by the city's legal department, a disagreement that will be left to the council to resolve.

But clear as day was the union members' anger over being considered a second class of city employees, by definition beneath the "public safety" classification. "We've got nurses that are contracting AIDS, tuberculosis, hepatitis, because they're administering the public health," Powell told me before the rally. "Our water protection guys, in the middle of floods, they're walking through fucking creeks, pulling garbage out of the drain lines so we don't have flooding out of control. … No one sees this stuff." As the budget moves toward a vote, Powell and his fellow employees are hoping the council will demonstrate a broader vision – and at least some recognition of the people slogging through the sewage.

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