What Are Our Association’s Goals? (How Can We Accomplish Them?)

What Are Our Association’s Goals?  (How Can We Accomplish Them?)
By Robin Nahin, CEA Staff

A city employees association is a labor union.  But, it’s not a big international union. It’s an independent, local organization representing the employees at that agency only.  It is charged with the same legal rights and responsibilities as any union: 1) negotiating a Labor Contract; 2) enforcing its members’ right to certain wages, benefits and work conditions under the law (and under that contract,) and 3) representing individual members when they are threatened with discipline or have work-related problems.

The key difference between an international union and a local one is control. Local control, by the members, themselves.  The “internationals” have tens of thousands of members. This means that decisions about dues rates, member representation, legal work, financial expenditures, and political endorsements are generally made at a national headquarter.

In contrast, members of a local organization elect their own officers, hire their own staff, decide how much they want to pay in dues and how that money will be spent.  They also decide how the kind of relationship they want to have to their employer’s management and its political leaders.

Local Unions = Local Government

Most decisions about your job are made by your own Agency.  State control over local government in California is weak.  The Meyers-Milias-Brown Act (the labor law for cities, counties, and special districts) grants each individual agency primary control over its own employees.  The bulk of your rights and benefits are not established by law, they are negotiated with your employer.

This is why local unions are most effective for cities and utility districts: they are more capable of targeting resources and engaging in frequent, ongoing communications with Management, than is a “one-size-fits-all” international union.  In concrete terms, this means that your association can respond quickly to Management’s behavior, can meet directly with your elected officials, can easily access the truth about the agency’s finances, and can negotiate an MOU specifically geared to the needs of your OWN members.  It also means that you can control your dues, hire as much (or as little) legal help as you need, and target resources to your own political action program (or on local charity and social events.)  It means that you are NOT automatically entangled with the program of an international union, however noble that program might be.

 But What about POWER?

All of this sounds idyllic, doesn’t it:  Local government and local unions, facing off equally to achieve their goals in the world of labor relations.  But what happens if your employer doesn’t play by the rules?  What if they don’t treat all parties equally?  What if they break the law or don’t respect your MOU, or don’t take Contract Bargaining seriously?  What if the City uses EXCESSIVE power to accomplish THEIR goals — and deliberately frustrate yours?

 What good is your little, independent union under these circumstances?

Well…you’d be surprised.  Although the effort may seem daunting, you DO have the ability to compel fair bargaining, compliance with law and contract, decent treatment for your members.  But it takes some work and some tenacity. Here’s a summary of the tools at your disposal:

Effective Communications.
This is the most basic, most powerful, tool in your arsenal.  People are generally reasonable and want to get along.  To the extent that your leaders or union staff can get management’s attention, you are usually able to persuade them to do the right thing.  This is often a matter of properly framing the subject and explaining to Management that they also would benefit from being fair and reasonable.

Careful communication works particularly well in smaller agencies, where managers and worker bees must see each other daily.  It’s peer pressure; few people can tolerate working in an atmosphere of resentment and hostility.  We sometimes call this the “Morale Card.”  Managers really do care about morale, if for no other reason that it affects attendance and productivity.  Further, most managers like to think of themselves as fair and are sensitive to accusations of injustice.  (And if lower management isn’t sensitive, then upper management might be more so – or at least less personally involved.)  Managers are also sensitive to communications about what the law might say about justice… Hence your need for good legal staff.

Skilled communications are also your key tool at the bargaining table.  A good negotiator should be able to explain your needs and persuade management to properly address them.  In truth, the City can’t close a deal without at least listening to you, and skilled  negotiators (and a competent team) should be able to convince even the most difficult Management that it’s simply easier to satisfy the bulk of your legitimate concerns than to slug it out through impasse and fact-finding.

The law.
In the last two decades, the labor laws affecting local agencies improved markedly.  If the City violates your MOU, you might start with the grievance procedure, but you CAN also go directly to the Public Employment Relations Board (PERB).  It takes a while, but the process is free, and PERB can compel your employer to follow the rules.  To the extent that external laws are incorporated in your Contract, PERB can also compel your employer to follow the law: the FLSA, ADA, FMLA, safety, discrimination, retaliation, etc.

PERB also hears unfair bargaining complaints and can literally set aside an improperly imposed MOU and force management back to the bargaining table.  It’s now much more difficult for employers to impose unreasonable contracts.

A small association can enforce its rights at PERB as easily as a large one.  You just need competent legal staff, a righteous cause, and the will to win (even if the City doesn’t like this)

Political Activity.
If your Management is unreasonable and/or unkind, then you must have a method for communicating beyond management, with the City Council or District Board.   Similarly, if this governing body is anti-employee or won’t treat your group fairly, you must have a method for communicating with, and influencing, them.  This method is called a Political Action Committee (PAC).

Association members are often reluctant to get involved in local politics.  This might be because top managers have threatened you or told you that this is inappropriate activity.  Please know that there is NOTHING inappropriate about maintaining ongoing, influential relations with your elected officials.  This is what most Police and Fire unions do all the time.

If your relations with your employer are effective and reasonable (i.e. you are already getting your fair share of the pie) then you don’t need a Political Action Committee. If your relations aren’t accomplishing your goals, and you don’t have a PAC, just know that you’ve got another potential tool in the toolbox.

Concerted Action.
Yes, you DO have the right to strike.  You also have the right to take votes of no confidence, to make scenes at Council meetings, to picket, to carry petitions into the neighborhood, etc.

One of the differences between big unions and local organizations is that big unions use these activities indiscriminately – and they often backfire.  This is largely because most of the public are no longer sympathetic.  They are mostly not unionized, and have, in fact, been manipulated by the media to think YOU are their problem.  So, public displays of your anger and frustration, no matter how legitimately fueled by mistreatment and injustice, will often not help your cause.  This is sad – but very true.

HOWEVER, threats of concerted action, communicated to the right people at the right time, can work wonders.  Also, mass attendance and polite presentations at Council meetings (when the Council has already been briefed and at least a few members are prepared to support your cause) can be very effective.  Intelligent concerted action, approved by your leadership, coordinated with your legal staff, supported by your members – and used only when your other tools have failed — can definitely help accomplish your goals.  (Keep in mind, though, that if you make a wrong move at the Council level, it can take years for your Union to recover from the damage.)