By TONY WINTON
Members of Key Biscayne’s fire department union expressed outrage this week after the Village of Key Biscayne demanded sweeping concessions in labor contract bargaining, including a cost-of-living freeze, proposals eroding pension guarantees, and language that would more easily allow a Village manager to outsource the fire department with 45 days’ notice.
The Village also is demanding removal of a basic job security provision that is almost universal in both public and private sector labor contracts, known as binding arbitration. Village negotiators are also seeking concessions in vacation and holiday provisions.
“It’s totally disgusting,” said Jose Marti, the president of the Key Biscayne Firefighters union. “It’s really an outrage.”
“This is what 99 % customer satisfaction gets us: disrespected by our elected officials,” he said.
Richard Weiner, the chief negotiator for two police department bargaining units and one general staff unit, said that his members were sent similar concessionary demands by the Village.
“We are on a parallel track” to the fire department talks, he said. In addition to removing the right to arbitration of disputes and the pension concessions, the proposals made to police officers and sergeants contained at least a dozen other demands, including elimination of a cost-of-living raise for 2021, and higher premium costs for family health insurance.
The Village’s position is a major change from its stance earlier in the year, when it proposed freezes on cost-of-living wage increases for unionized staff and a few other concessions. Fire union officials said the Village withdrew that earlier proposal and replaced it with the new, more aggressive posture following a closed-door council meeting Sept. 30 to discuss labor strategy.
Asked for comment, several elected officials declined to explain the sudden shift in bargaining posture. At the most recent negotiating session Oct. 9, the Village’s chief negotiator told fire union bargainers that the Village Council was not bluffing.
Some Village Council candidates have openly suggested considering outsourcing fire department services, but have advanced no concrete proposals.
“My read on this Council is that unless you guys engage and come back and agree to some of this stuff, they’re going to look to do it,” said Village Attorney Brett Schneider told the union.
Marti, the fire union leader, responded that his members were not afraid of a fight.
“Let’s get right to it. I want to expose these people for the fools that they are,” referring to the Council. He said morale inside the department, which has been responding to the COVID-19 pandemic along with its other duties, had been crushed.
In addition to the language allowing easier outsourcing, the Village is seeking deletion of an arbitration clause. Arbitration is a system in which labor contract disputes are submitted to an independent decision-maker to avoid work disruptions. It has been a common feature of labor agreements nationwide since the 1930s.
“It’s a slap in the face to workers who are there in rain or shine in the middle of a pandemic,” said Kathy Phillips, the firefighters’ negotiator. “It has little to do with the financial status of the Village, it has to do with philosophy.”
In what appears to be a break with precedent, Fire Chief Eric Lang told union bargainers that he had been excluded from the Village Council’s secret strategy sessions. Police Chief Charles Press declined comment, but another source knowledgeable with the discussions said Press was also excluded from the Council’s executive session.
The Village is set to resume talks with the unions later this month, labor leaders said.
Care about strong local journalism?
Join our mailing list as the KBI continues in its pre-launch phase.
Tony Winton is the editor-in-chief of the Key Biscayne Independent and president of Miami Fourth Estate, Inc. He worked previously at The Associated Press for three decades winning multiple Edward R. Murrow awards. He was president of the News Media Guild, a journalism union, for 10 years. Born in Chicago, he is a graduate of Columbia University. His interests are photography and technology, sailing, cooking, and science fiction.