Almanac

News - July 13, 2011

Labor council steps into Atherton staff layoff fray; City Council meets Tuesday

by Renee Batti

The San Mateo County Central Labor Council sent a sharply worded message to Atherton Mayor Jim Dobbie last week, urging the town to negotiate a "fair and equitable agreement" with the union representing 12 town employees who are almost certain to lose their jobs on July 15.

The employees of the town's public works and building departments were handed layoff notices in late May, and have attempted to save their jobs by offering major concessions in their compensation. But the town appears poised to follow through on a plan to ax the jobs and outsource the services to private firms.

The City Council meets in closed session at 2 p.m. Tuesday, July 12, to discuss the matter, although no formal council action is required to allow Interim City Manager John Danielson to move forward with the plan. The public can address the council before it goes into its closed meeting.

Members of Teamsters Union Local 856, representing the 12 affected employees and three others who don't face layoff, authorized a strike on July 5 after town negotiators, union representatives and a state mediator failed to reach an agreement after about 10 hours of talks. Union representative Peter Finn said 92 percent of the membership gave the union the green light to call a strike.

Mr. Danielson said that the mediator found the two parties at an impasse.

In the labor council letter to the mayor, executive secretary-treasurer Shelley Kessler said the labor council granted "emergency strike sanction" to the local union unit, and that "if a settlement is not reached, I shall begin our process of support activities."

In a telephone interview, Ms. Kessler told the Almanac that the union is still "trying to have conversations" with the town about saving some of the jobs. At this point, there are no specific actions planned against the town as labor leaders monitor the situation, but that could change, depending on the results of further talks, she said.

Employees have offered concessions to help eliminate the budget's estimated $856,000 structural deficit. Those concessions would save the town at least $300,000, according to Mr. Finn.

In the labor council's letter, Ms. Kessler writes: "The decision of your town to outsource the entire workforce of the building and public works department with no public discussion is not only shortsighted and detrimental to the city's ability to be accountable to its citizenry; it completely ignores the union's offer to negotiate a fair settlement that would save the city more than $300,000, let alone the tremendous revenues that were achieved by (the building department) over the past two years."

Ms. Kessler told the Almanac that because the building department is designed to pay for itself through fees, it appears to labor leaders that the town is more interested in "an opportunity to bust the union" rather than addressing financial problems — a charge Mr. Danielson denies.

The building department hasn't been self-sustaining for the last couple of years, he said, and is subject to "the yoyo effect" because of seasonal slowdowns in building, when fee-generation also slows down.

But that claim is disputed by union leaders, who complain that their requests for information about the building department reserves have been denied. The Almanac also has been unsuccessful in obtaining that information, and has filed a Public Records Act request.

Building inspector Joseph Aiello, who also is a union steward and is bracing to lose his job, has challenged the management of the department, saying that when it is run properly, it pays for itself. He said that the department has had only one minor slowdown, and that was in late 2008. The department, he said, "is busy and getting busier."

Mr. Danielson said last week that "the staffing for the building department has been really spotty the past couple of weeks," he said. Although he wouldn't characterize the absences as a slowdown — a strategy used at times by represented employees dissatisfied with the progress of labor talks — he noted that on July 5 "no one showed up in the building department" to staff the front counter. The town had to call in substitute help from the private firm that employs the current interim building official, he said.

Mr. Aiello defended the staff against the insinuation that employees were taking time off without permission. He told the Almanac that no one took time off that day who wasn't scheduled to be off. The schedule is made by Interim Building Official Dennis Lockard, an employee with the private firm CSG, which has been providing contract service since the retirement of building official Mike Wassman last September.

INFORMATION

The Atherton City Council will meet in closed session to discuss matters related to the possible layoff of 12 employees and the outsourcing of services. The meeting is at 2 p.m., and begins with a chance for the public to comment on the issue. It will be held in the Council Chambers, 94 Ashfield Road in the Town Center.

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