Beside the Point

Solidarity Blossoms

Echoing my editor's words on the flip side, as we just learned firsthand, campaign season opens earlier and earlier each year. The signs were unmistakable – opening the paper on Saturday, there it was, plain as day: "Police department spent 37% of overtime budget in 4 months."

Yes, primary season in the annual budget battle is already upon us.

Aside from City Manager Toby Futrell's hand-wringing in the daily ("There isn't a blank check anywhere in public service" – true, yet as noted by some prominent observers, in her capacity preparing the budget, this wasn't exactly unforeseen), there's about to be a new wrinkle in budget considerations, one with much more far-reaching potential: meet-and-confer bargaining rights for most of the city's thousands of rank-and-file employees. Today's City Council Agenda Item 30 is the first public step in that process. Sponsored by Council Members Mike Martinez, Sheryl Cole, and Lee Leffingwell, today's (Thursday) vote will let the Lege know Austin's ready for meet-and-confer contract talks for the city's non-civil-service employees (basically, everybody but firefighters and cops). It's there, under the Dome, where the process begins, says Jack Kirfman, the local union rep for the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees.

With legislation needed for M&C to occur, Kirfman anticipates a draft from the Legislative Council "should be out any day." Noting that the city of Houston got similar legislation enacted, he sees the city's chances as good. "Being it's Austin and being it's the Legislature," Kirfman says nothing's ever certain, but with a majority of the council dais on board with the program, "I suppose it sends a strong message." Should the legislation pass, AFSCME would request pledges from a majority of the workforce they'd represent. "Once the law's enacted, we'd petition eligible workers to be their sole representative." Once approved, the group would "start the wheels" to negotiation. "We have been real successful in making our cases to the city manager, to City Council, on behalf of employees," says Kirfman. "They're good people. … But this would give us true bargaining status, as opposed to collective begging status." He notes that representation applies not just to salary, but to things like career progression, consistency across disciplinary policies, and more. "Not only money's a problem. Money's important, but working conditions and policies – they're important to people, too."

Even if all goes according to plan, meet-and-confer could only take effect in time for next year's budget, at the earliest. That time should allow AFSCME to consolidate its support – but will the Austin Police Association resent the newest seat at the proverbial table? Or will budget-cinchers at the city use the new union's leverage to try setting the two at loggerheads? Kirfman notes that city employees don't have to join up when they pledge AFSCME as their sole representative, but "APA's got like 90% membership in their ranks [from the police force], which means resources and clout." There's strength in numbers.

So what's that leave for today? A light agenda creating new initiatives and finalizing other issues. In the same populist vein as Item 30 are initiatives pertaining to payment – raises – for municipal court judges and clerks. On the older side, the CLB Partners' tower at Seventh and Rio Grande is up for likely passage on second and third reading, while the Congress and Sixth Street Business Retention and Enhancement Fund jumps off with $715,415. Lastly, the Waller Creek tunnel winds its way to council for public input not this week, but next, following its fete at the county Commissioners Court. Can you say water under the bridge?

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Austin City Council, Meet-and-Confer, AFSCME, City Council, APA, Unions, Legislature, Jack Kirfman, Budget

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