Blog post was written by Patricia Vinchesi, ICMA Northeast Regional Director

ICMA’s UNITE session, “Contract Bargaining for First-Time Administrators” is being offered Tuesday, September 22, from 4:00-4:45 PM ET followed by a question and answer period for attendees. The session will be presented by labor attorney John Clifford, founding partner of Clifford and Kenney, and Patricia Vinchesi, former manager and ICMA’s Northeast Regional Director.

With all that is new being a local government manager for the first time, perhaps the most daunting prospect is facing your first round of contract negotiations with employee unions. While you can read and study a budget and commit zoning ordinances and operational policies to memory, negotiating effective union contracts is truly learned by experience at the table. However, that does not mean if you have never been bargained a contract before you should feel ill-equipped to negotiate a fair and equitable contract for your employees nor be able to reach an agreement that does not bankrupt town finances. Its all about preparation and knowing what is reasonable and realistic.

The key to effective bargaining is preparation. In negotiations, the old adage, “by failing to prepare you are preparing to fail” is especially appropriate. Taking the time to do your homework upfront will yield positive dividends in the long run. This includes developing an overall bargaining strategy for all employee unions with specific goals. Once developed discuss them with your council/board to insure they agree. It is critical to have their buy-in early at the outset of the process because any eventual contract agreement will be dependent upon their approval. In addition, council members will inevitably be approached at some point during negotiations and you want to make sure they are aware of what management is proposing and the rationale behind it. Be mindful of drafting reasonable proposals considering the objective behind it, why management needs it and the likelihood the union will agree to it. Also consider that if they are agreeable, what will they want in exchange and what you are willing to give in exchange. Know what proposals you receive from the union are non-starters and those you are open to with the knowledge that you should be prepared to agree to them for all other bargaining units as well.

Detailed preparation also includes reviewing current contracts and noting where any past issues have been with language clarity or interpretation, grievances, or if any side agreements that have been negotiated during the present contract term need to be incorporate. You should also make a list of any court cases, legal findings or state or federal statutes that need to be addressed in a new agreement.

A detailed cost analysis of what each current union contract is costing allows you to understand what your financial obligations are now and how each monetary proposal you agree to in bargaining will cost you going forward. Before the first bargaining session you should know what the cost of your “composite” employee is for each union, not only for salary, but for all roll-ups such as compensated absences, uniform allowances and benefits such as health insurance. What is the cost of a 1% cost of living increase? Know the costs of your proposals not just for the current term but in perpetuity.  Similarly, when the union shares its proposals, you should cost out those as well. Seldom are total cost impacts of a two- or three-year contract calculated. You should also know if your wage and benefits are comparable to the regional market area. This will help you provide you with a valuable and reliable frame of reference for evaluating wage proposals.

Many who are unfamiliar with the bargaining process can view it as a contentious, “who blinks first” exercise. This posture is doomed to failure. Bargaining is about shared interests, a give-or-take proposition, not defeating the other side in a win-lose situation.  Communication, based on mutual respect and civility, is crucial to a collaborative bargaining environment. Listen to what is being asked for and seek to understand why the union wants a particular proposal.  Yes, there will be conflicts and they can get ugly at times. But as the manager, your tone, demeanor and even body language set the stage. Remember that members of the bargaining team and by extension the union, are your employees. You are all working toward the same thing: to provide quality services to the community and provide staff a fair and competitive compensation package for doing it. Finally, don’t start communications when the contract expires. Good labor management relations succeed when management and labor talk all the time, not just when it is time to sit at the table.


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