March 26 2009 12:00 AM

The Teamsters Union is butting heads with the city of Lansing over contract workers, bargaining negotiations.

A local labor union leader is accusing the city of Lansing of “union-busting” tactics in its hiring of contract workers, noting a disconnect between what it sees as unfair labor practices and Mayor Virg Bernero’s recent efforts on national television lobbying for working-class autoworkers.

Teamsters Local 580 Secretary Treasurer Mike Parker said that the city has used contract workers to fill vacant union positions, thus undermining the union’s contract, and has filed a complaint with the Michigan Employment Relations Commission about it.

A separate complaint filed last fall by the union found the city guilty of violating requirements to provide information "relevant and necessary to its role as the bargaining agent for employees" of the city — specifically, notifying the union of temporary and contract hires. The commission sanctioned the city, requiring it to post a 30-day notice informing employees of the unfair labor practice.

According to the commission, the decision was not appealed by the city and was adopted in December.

As part of the judgment, the city has provided the Teamsters with the lists of employees hired. The other complaint which is still pending, asks the commission to rule on whether the hiring practice is changing the scope of the bargaining agreement.

"Basically theyve been bargaining in bad faith with us," Parker said of the city. The alleged contract hires violated the unions contract, he said, because "what is union work is to be kept within the union."

The Teamsters allege in its complaint that, "The Employer has violated its duty to bargain by unilaterally altering the scope of the bargaining unit and by removing bargaining unit work and assigning it to nonbargaining unit Personnel." The document then names 11 workers hired on a contract or temporary basis to support the unions claims, and also charges that the city is not honoring past grievance settlements.

Terri Singleton, director of the city Human Resources Department, which handles the union negotiations, said the city was well within its rights in hiring contract and temporary employees to fill vacancies.

"The union contract allows us to put someone in for 120 days while posting a vacancy," she said.

That clause also allows the city to bring on workers for special, one-time projects. She said she was surprised by the filing of the unfair labor practice, but noted that Parker had made the unfair labor practice allegations early after Mayor Virg Bernero took office.

"Mike Parker says were unilaterally changing the scope of the bargaining agreement. That isnt true, by the way,” she said.

The issue, she said, wasnt that the city was attempting an end-run around the contract, but that in the changeover from former Mayor Tony Benavides administration to Bernero’s, the city did not provide information about the new hires to the unions in a timely manner, and sometimes allowed employees to stay past the allotted 120 days without asking for a waiver from the unions. She said there havent been any "issues" since her department has gotten a handle on who is working under what contract.

There are rumblings that the administration is bargaining with the unions with an iron fist. One well-placed source, who declined to be named, said the administration will sometimes declare an "impasse" during contract negotiations, which then frees the city to legally impose its "last, best" contract offer onto the union.

John Revitte, a professor of labor relations at Michigan State University, says an employer is required to bargain in good faith with its unions, but it is always up for argument whether the negotiations are at an impasse or whether the employer is looking for a change to impose its last offer.

The source said that under the Bernero administration that last best offer has included health care coverage changes the unions arent allergic to, but want to be able to have on the bargaining table. The way the unions see it, if it’s going to agree to make changes to its health care programs in order to save money — money saved there wont then be taken out of workers pay or cost them jobs when the city is forced to make tough calls come budget time — something should be given back in exchange. What the city is doing, some say, is taking away the ability to bargain.

Singleton rebutted that claim, saying all health care changes implemented with the unions have come as a result of the bargaining process.

Thats not to say the unions dont understand the economic crisis facing the city. Brian Epling, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 421, which represents the Lansing Fire Department, said his intent in these tough times has been to work with the city. While he says the firefighters havent specifically been asked for health care concessions, or had to file a complaint against the city, he admits that heath care cuts have been mentioned during joint labor management meetings.

"Every time we enter into a new budget cycle, when (the administration is) faced with solving the deficit, those have come up as topics of discussion," he said, but added that he and his members have been actively working through the budget issues with the administration.

While Epling cant speak to the problems the Teamsters are having with the city and the administration, he is glad to see the mayor sticking up for the working class on national television.

"I appreciate the fact that hes been outspoken for working families. My hope is that he continues to speak that frame of mind at local level."

The Teamsters Parker disagrees. He sees a disconnect between the national defense of the working class and what he alleges are the citys attempts to undercut unions.

"Were in concessionary bargaining right now," Parker said. "Were trying to come to an agreement. Weve offered to work with them… .At the same time (Bernero is) undercutting us."

"Its union-busting behavior," he said, "and I told (Bernero) that."

With another budget proposal on the horizon, there are sure to be tough conversations ahead, but that doesnt mean the administration is asking unions to bear the brunt of the economic downturn.

"Were not asking labor, from our perspective, to make concessions. Were asking them to work together and find ways to cut costs," Singleton said.