Unions expect big things from mayor
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Unions figure Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed owes them a big debt. Now they expect him to pay.
“We did a lot of work and we spent a lot of our resources,” said Charlie Flemming, an AFL-CIO leader, referring to organized labor’s campaign for Reed. “He was at 3 percent when we endorsed him. The Chamber of Commerce didn’t come in until the end. They hedged their bets. We were there from the start.”
Unions want Reed to back specific policies that give local companies an edge in landing city contracts and reward companies that have better wages, benefits and history with unions. More importantly, they don’t want to be pushed aside -- which is their contention with past mayors -- now that Reed is in office. They want a strong say in how the administration tackles labor-related issues, such as runaway pension costs, and appointments to committees and boards, such as the MARTA board of directors, in which labor has a stake.
“We want to have a voice on the front end because so often when labor-related things get done, we end up fighting after the fact,” said Flemming, president of the Atlanta-North Georgia Labor Council, which represents about 90,000 workers in the metro area. “So many times when the city does things, labor is an afterthought but business is always there.”
Reed or his campaign staff might have made prior union commitments, City Councilman Howard Shook said.
“He managed to earn pretty strong and pretty early labor support,” Shook said. “I’ve certainly wondered who had promised what to get all that support.”
Reed disputed that claim, insisting he made no promises to labor leaders other than offer an open-door policy and ensure their input into his major decisions affecting workers.
“I want them to have a seat at the table,” said Reed, who had labor support as a state senator.
As far as labor is concerned, Reed made the right move in appointing two labor representatives to his transition team that will shape his administration, including Yvonne Robinson, an official with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Robinson’s union represents most Atlanta city employees, people deeply impacted by any proposal reforming their pension system. Reed said he came to depend on Robinson’s advice during the campaign.
Legal experts, consultants and politicians wonder whether labor is asking for too much for several reasons. State low-bidder laws govern city contracts. Reed made a campaign issue out of drastically reforming Atlanta’s pension. Labor started with a strong relationship with Mayor Shirley Franklin that unraveled.
Gene O’Kelley, business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 613, said Reed can do several things to help workers — union and nonunion — such as obtain better jobs and assist local companies in receiving better contracts. For example, Reed mentioned pursuing federal stimulus money for an electric street car project for Peachtree Street.
“That is a major undertaking that will put people to work,” O’Kelley said.
O’Kelley said there is precedent for the city adopting a “qualified bidder” policy in which contractors receive an edge for meeting pay scales and hiring and spending locally. Savannah-Chatham County has a policy that favors companies with a strong record in municipal construction, including industrial safety standards.
“A low bidder comes from out of town and often doesn’t hire local people,” O’Kelley said. “Low bid isn’t always what it is cracked up to be. You pay for what you get.”
Norman Slawsky, an Atlanta labor lawyer, said a policy that favors unionized companies benefits everyone.
“Generally companies who have union contracts have been around longer, they are more established and are more stable companies,” said Slawsky, who represents unions.
Reed is open to tying city contracts to a bid process with a preference for Georgia companies.
“They should have a greater competitive advantage in Atlanta than businesses who are outside of the state and who hire employees who are outside of the state,” he said.
Charles Shanor, Emory University labor law expert, said even if Reed is sympathetic to labor concerns, Georgia laws requiring cities to accept the lowest responsible bid would curtail his and the council’s ability to funnel work to certain companies.
Slawsky said “responsible bidder” is undefined by the state statute, and Atlanta could adopt a policy for a local company preference if willing to face a potential court battle.
State law might shield Reed from labor criticism regarding contracts, but he faces considerable opposition in his dealings with unions representing the city employee pension fund he plans to reform.
“It’s not clear what is going on with the pensions,” said Gina Pagnotta, president of the Professional Association of City Employees. “My membership is really uneasy. They’re panicking.”
Kelen Evans, firefighters’ pension board chairman, said there is little Reed can do about the current plan, but he expects the mayor to seek change in the vestment period, from 10 to 15 years, and reduce the benefit for new employees. New employees might be responsible for the bulk of the contribution.
“I think he is going to play hardball,” Evans said of the mayor. “I think he has his mind made up about what he wants to do about the pension. I just don’t know what it is.”
Flemming said labor understands there will be pension reform and Reed won’t have total say over contracts. However, labor plans to hold the mayor accountable in gaining a voice in decisions regarding city policies.
The AFL-CIO leader is counting on Reed to keep it friendly between labor and the mayor’s office. No doubt there will be battles. Flemming believes Reed knows it’s in his best interest they don’t end bitterly.
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