The Village of Key Biscayne neared agreement with one of two unions representing its employees this week, offering a 5.5% first year wage increase, a new Juneteenth holiday, and retention of current promotion systems.
But talks with unionized members of the Fire Rescue Department are much further apart, even as leaders from both sides praised each other for a quickened pace and a more cordial tone compared to the acrimony of prior years.
The talks have also differed noticeably from recent years because Village Manager Steve Williamson has taken a direct and personal interest. He has been present at most sessions and has jumped in several times to push the discussion forward. Previous Village managers often delegated the job.
The details of the labor contracts are hugely important in the Village’s budget, because payroll drives about 60% of costs.
Richard Weiner, the chief bargainer for the police and general employee groups — about 75 of 110 unionized workers — said he’s hopeful a final deal may be worked out at the next session in August. One obstacle fell away Tuesday: the Village dropped a concession it had proposed regarding promotion policy. Remaining sticking points concern holiday rules and incentive issues for police.
But in the fire talks, however, there are much larger differences.
The Key Biscayne Firefighters Union is seeking a first-year wage increase of 9%, followed by an additional 5% over the rate of inflation in a later year of the contract. The union is also asking the Village to release about $450,000 in state funds to enhance retirement plans, instead of pocketing the money to defray the contribution into the pension plan.
Union President Eddie Blanco said firefighters are simply trying to catch up after taking hits because of inflation, saying their earning power is down nearly 11% because of higher prices.
“Our guys can’t afford Miami. We have guys still living with their parents,” he said.
There was a brief moment of tension when Chief Financial Officer Benjamin Nussbaum asked union leaders “what are we getting out of this deal?” after hearing the list of sticking points.
“It’s very disturbing to me for you to ask that question,” said the union’s chief negotiator, Kathleen Phillips. “We provide service,” she answered, listing examples where department members spent their own money to help hurricane victims.
The firefighters also claim Key Biscayne is losing qualified workers and applicants to other local departments that offer better wages and benefits. Indeed, Fire Chief Eric Lang has spoken to Council Members repeatedly about a major operations challenge posed by upcoming vacancies in the department.
After Wednesday’s session, Williamson pushed back on the union’s assertion, saying Key Biscayne is a very attractive municipality for job seekers. But he also said he is working to wrap up talks before the Village Council votes on a budget in September, so that raises can begin in October.
As for his personal involvement, he said his presence is very much intended to be a signal.
“People are important to me,” he said. “We don’t do anything without good people.”
Phillips, the union lawyer and veteran of many tough sessions with Key Biscayne, agreed Williamson’s presence has been positive.
“It moves things along,” she said.
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.