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Publish Date: 10/12/2005

LPOA strips down union plan
Council creates advisory panel to hear employee concerns

LONGMONT — Pro-union police officers and firefighters have offered a stripped-down version of their collective bargaining plan to city leaders, but reiterate they still intend to unionize.

Voters last November rejected a unionization plan that would have covered about 200 police officers, dispatchers, firefighters and records clerks working for the two departments. The proposal said that, because police officers and firefighters cannot strike, they deserve the opportunity to bargain with city leaders for pay, benefits, working conditions and even whether they should be subject to drug and physical fitness testing.

The Longmont City Council opposed the plan, saying it would strip important management rights from the police and fire chiefs, create a system where public safety workers would never see their wages cut without their approval, and give too much power to an unelected arbitrator when talks stall.

“This rewrite is not a final version of anything,” said Mike Violette, a Longmont police officer and spokesman for the pro-union groups. “It is what we offered in the spirit of compromise and to get meaningful negotiations started. Compare it to last year’s proposed amendment and you will see most of the opposition’s arguments have been addressed.”

The new proposal acknowledges that the police and fire chiefs should have ultimate authority over staffing decisions, makes pay cuts negotiable and lowers the rank at which police officers would be covered by the agreement. It also backs off many of the specific “must bargain” requirements, such as drug testing, shift schedules and emergency staffing procedures.

But, like union contracts in general, it gives an unelected arbitrator the final authority to settle disputes when negotiations reach impasse. Pro-union police officers and firefighters are trying to get the City Council to acknowledge they are compromising.

Violette added: “This rewrite is the foundation for a new ballot question if we are forced back to an election. But, remember, it certainly is not a final version — just a glimpse into the future.”

The unionization proposal rejected by voters created a rift between a number of police officers. Many of the department’s sergeants and supervisors publicly opposed the plan, while rank-and-file officers supported it. And many firefighters remain upset, feeling their pensions are not generous enough. The unionization drive surfaced in earnest after the city in 2003 froze pay increases in all city departments for a year to cope with the economic downturn.

Unionization would dramatically change the relationship between and among police officers, firefighters, their superiors and city leaders, and between the public safety workers and the rest of the city’s employees, who would not enjoy the same ability to negotiate their salaries, benefits and working conditions.

Said Violette in 2004 in introducing the proposal to the Longmont Police Officers’ Association: “We cannot trust the current city manager and City Council, nor future city managers and city councils, to protect what we have or what we may attain. They have shown they have no aversion to reducing benefits or freezing wages. We currently have no protection against these things and are at the mercy of decisions made by a city manager and City Council with each year’s budget.”

In Colorado, relatively few public or private-sector workers are represented by unions. But nationally, many large and small police and fire departments enjoy the protection of collective bargaining, which gives them more power to fight for higher wages and benefits. In Longmont, police officers and firefighters can chose to either get paid what the city offers or get another job.

The LPOA and the Longmont Professional Firefighters’ Association have withdrawn from ongoing talks with city manager Gordon Pedrow because they feel he is unwilling to listen to their concerns. Their newest proposal was sent directly to the council. Pedrow said he was not empowered to negotiate directly with the public safety workers.

Not every police officer supports the unionization drive; many of the department’s sergeants oppose the plan and instead back an elected employee advisory panel that was created by the council unanimously Tuesday night.

“We oppose the LPOA’s efforts toward unionization of the police department and also collective bargaining,” said Sgt. Paul Campbell in a short statement to the council before the vote. Among those joining Campbell at the lectern were fellow sergeants Bruce Wittich, Doug Ross, Gary Schmidt and Mike Bell, and officer Arpad Bality.

The creation of the employee advisory group is intended to show that the council is trying to listen to employee concerns, and in part is an effort to persuade voters to again reject a unionization plan. The new advisory group will meet Nov. 17, after city workers select representatives from within their departments.

Ross, who served on a steering committee to develop the advisory group, said he believes a small group of Longmont officers will never give up trying to unionize. He urged the public to continue rejecting the proposal. Ross said he continues to work closely with pro-union officers despite their difference of opinion on this one topic.

“I hope the message gets out to the community that what they’re trying to accomplish is not necessary,” Ross said.

Trevor Hughes can be reached at 303-684-5220, or by e-mail at thughes@times-call.com.

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