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Collective Bargaining, Irate Taxpayers Drive Public Policy

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Minchin Lewis
December 15, 2015

The source:

truck-417149_640“What is yellow all over, has eight wheels and sleeps six?” Answer: a Department of Public Works dump truck, observed by an irate taxpayer during a break time that was collectively bargained.

Vito Sciscioli, longtime public servant in Syracuse, N.Y., is the source of this partially fictionalized riddle. He was the manager who answered the phone the next morning. He took the complaint seriously and dealt with the workers.

Collective bargaining and public policy:

Collective bargaining in the public sector brings public employees together with their employers to establish working conditions, usually in formal contracts. In the private sector, such questions are settled by market forces. Employers control capital. Employees control labor. It is not so clear in the public sector with many implications for policy.

Policy is made in collective bargaining:

The policy of the Department of Public Works was to collect discarded “white goods” (stoves, refrigerators, water heaters), a task that requires heavy lifting. The goal was to pick up these items within 24 hours. The break time negotiated in the union contract provided an incentive for the crew. The alternative would have been to increase the staff assigned to the crew or to extend the goal for the pickup.

Politics mixes with collective bargaining:

The taxpayer’s fury had a political impact. The newspaper headline, accompanied by a photo of the dozing city workers, raised the issue to the boiling point. This was small in strategic terms, but highlighted a bigger point: the collective bargaining process does not directly involve political representatives, but the unions knock on the door of their elected officials. Daniel Disalvo, in “The Trouble with Public Sector Unions,” warns that public employee unions have used political power to shape the services government provides as well as the cost of those services.

Efficiency can come from collective bargaining:

Actually, in our anecdotal account, the collective bargaining process resulted in an efficient solution given the policy objective. The process at the bargaining table built a bridge between labor and management. Labor accepted the city’s goal of prompt pickups. As Nick Fiorenza, an accomplished labor attorney, put it, “Bargaining needs relationships. The key is to see the other side of the table as people, not positions.”

Economics can drive collective bargaining:

The economics of the break time for the dump truck crew were clear. The crew worked harder before and after the break. They were motivated, not by the refreshment of the break, but by the atmosphere that management created by agreeing to the incentive. Morale got a boost that resulted in boosting more appliances into the dump truck.

Or collective bargaining can drive dis-economies:

The economics don’t always work for collective bargaining. Negotiators on both sides of the table search for positions that they can “sell” to their constituencies. On the government side, the easiest thing to agree on is a non-cash benefit—one that is not paid in the next budget. “Break time” is one of those.

Such contract terms may not result in higher taxes right now. However, the piper gets paid in the future. In addition, operationally they are more costly. Fiorenza observed that, unfortunately, both the union and management perspectives are short-term. The commitments are long-term.

Public participation is limited for good reason:

Democracy takes no place at the collective bargaining table. Labor and management are represented by a fraternity of collective bargaining practitioners. This is not a negative. Unless the negotiators at the table have mutual respect, nothing positive would come from the process. The contentious issues are those that require taxpayer resources. The process works in levels of negotiations, starting with formal positions that deserve an airing. The contract terms evolve from a limited number of options, often far removed from the formal positions. The process would not play well on a public stage. But the contract does get a public airing when legislative bodies must vote on the contract.

Management can play a critical role in collective bargaining:

Collective bargaining does not take place in a vacuum. Management has years between contracts to fill that vacuum with positive dynamics. Trust is built on a daily basis as management interacts with the men and women who are doing the heavy lifting. Management also controls the vacuum by filling it with information. Going into negotiating sessions, governments have often claimed poverty when the labor representatives had the financial statements that showed million dollar surpluses. Collective bargaining is based on trust.

Lessons to be learned:

According to Sciscioli, the message here is “build the team.” Start with mutually agreed upon objectives. Move from there to an understanding of the objectives of each side. Brain-storm on the solutions that can respond to all the dynamics.

Fiorenza’s advice is that collective bargaining is not a three-year cycle. It is a process where management and labor work together continually.

The results:   

Sciscioli dealt with the irate taxpayer by providing the background for the collectively bargained break time. He also dealt with the workers by advising them to find a more remote place to take their break.


Author: Minch Lewis is an adjunct professor at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School where he earned a MPA degree. He served as the elected city auditor in Syracuse, N.Y.., for nine years. Minch can be reached at [email protected].

This article is based on conversations with Vito Sciscioli, former director of operations for the City of Syracuse and Nicholas J. Fiorenza of Ferrara Fiorenza PC, specializing in employment and labor relations practice representing employers. 

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