2010-02-11 / News

Contract negotiator talks strategy

By Phil Zahodiakin

A labor contract negotiator this week presented his rationale for Jamestown to hire a professional negotiator for the upcoming contract talks with the police union.

Dan Kinder, a Providencebased attorney, addressed the Jamestown Taxpayers Association during its Feb. 8 meeting at the Jamestown library, which was attended by only 15 people – a result, association President John Pagano said, of “our many ‘snowbirds’ being away.”

The meeting was also attended by Town Administrator Bruce Keiser and Town Council members Mike White and Ellen Winsor, who was on hand for a portion of Kinder’s presentation.

Kinder didn’t delve into any aspects of the current police contract, which will expire on July 1, and he stressed that he wasn’t addressing the group “to persuade anyone that I should be hired.”

However, he invited interested parties to “compare the results” of his 30-year track record with the results of non-professional negotiations. He also said that he had previously “rolled back some generous ‘give-aways’” while representing Jamestown in its negotiations with non-school unions during the 1990s.

“We made some dramatic strides on behalf of Jamestown taxpayers,” Kinder said. “It isn’t easy asking for rollbacks because no one ever likes to give back money. But we reached favorable and conservative settlements at the end of those two cycles, and I suspect there has been some erosion since then.”

The police union will likely push back if Jamestown were to hire a professional negotiator.

“During the last council meeting,” said Amy Gallagher, “there was an indication that the union would feel disadvantaged if the town hired a negotiator, and that they would seek arbitration. That riled me up because it looks like the union is controlling the process.”

Keiser replied that he had, in fact, heard “a comment” to that effect at the council meeting.

He also said that “labor harmony is very, very important. If you lose it, you’ll lose productivity,” adding that there are a lot of discretionary choices that the police can make in their routine business if they feel their contract isn’t fair.

Kinder said, “I run into this sort of union attempt to influence decisions [on contract proposals] all the time.”

But, he added, he doesn’t disagree about the importance of community relations with the union members.

Asked if the unions would bring a professional negotiator to the table, Keiser said, “There are different levels of expertise on the union side of the table, but it wouldn’t be someone who has been a lifelong negotiator. It would probably be someone who has retired from another career.”

If the town hired a negotiator for the police union parley, Keiser would still be a key participant, Kinder said, adding that he “wouldn’t go to the table without Bruce.”

If, on the other hand, the town didn’t hire a negotiator, Keiser would represent the town – with Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero at his side.

Keiser acknowledged that he would be well-positioned to “provide a context for our side of the table. In today’s economic climate, it’s easier to make my points with the unions, impressing them with what we’re facing fiscally and our ability to support current workforce levels and wages and benefits without additional taxes.”

Said Kinder, “Some unions live in ‘never never land.’ But the reality in Rhode Island is that not only is there no money, in many of our towns it’s ‘minus money.’ That’s why you see arbitration everywhere.”

A key piece of the negotiations with the police union will involve health insurance benefits.

Keiser said that, unlike police department employees in most other R.I. towns, almost all Jamestown police pay 20 percent of their insurance premiums, along with co-pays for their visits to doctors and emergency rooms.

“In other towns, police employee contributions toward their premiums are nominal – or moderate, at most,” Keiser said.

Gallagher, who is an expert in the health insurance arena, advised Keiser against a co-pay focus in the negotiations.

“I hope it won’t be your strategy to pursue greater co-pays for ER and doctor visits. It’s a common strategy, and [copay increases] look like you’ve achieved something, but there’s very little gain there. You should be focused on increasing deductibles and contributions on premiums.”

Keiser said, “It’s because of the contracts negotiated during the ‘90s that our police and municipal employee contracts are very lean. In other towns, the contracts are bloated because those are mayoral communities, where the candidates seek union support during elections and then have to deliver on their promises.

“Our contracts can be tweaked,” Keiser continued, “but not excessively.”

According to Keiser, the Taxpayers Association had said it was urged by a similar Little Compton group to be an advocate for a professional negotiator.

“So I looked at their police contract to see if I could learn something,” he said. “Well, I learned that, unlike Jamestown police employees, who contribute 9% of their salaries toward their pension, their police contribute nothing – zero – towards their retirement. I’d consider that to be very liberal and generous.”

In his only remarks of the evening, council member White said, “It’s our job on the Town Council to determine that Bruce is capable, and that he has the time for these negotiations. We will set the parameters as far as our negotiating goals. If we determined that Bruce would be out-matched at the table, it would be our responsibility to hire someone more equivalent. But I am not voting tonight.”

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