Union reps ask EO City Council to help contract negotiations

Photo by Chris Sykes AFL-CIO CWA staff representative Jenelle Blackmon, left, stands with a group of East Orange city employees who are also members of CWA Local 1077 and were at the City Council meeting on Monday, Dec. 14, to inform the legislative body about difficulties in their ongoing contract negotiations with Mayor Lester Taylor's administration.
Photo by Chris Sykes
AFL-CIO CWA staff representative Jenelle Blackmon, left, stands with a group of East Orange city employees who are also members of CWA Local 1077 and were at the City Council meeting on Monday, Dec. 14, to inform the legislative body about difficulties in their ongoing contract negotiations with Mayor Lester Taylor’s administration.

EAST ORANGE, NJ — Several East Orange employees came to the City Council’s regular meeting Monday, Dec. 14, to make the city’s legislative body aware of difficulties they say they are having with Mayor Lester Taylor’s administration.

Bennie Brantley, an employee in the Department of Public Works who is also the president of Communication Workers of America Local 1077 of AFL-CIO District 1, said he attended the meeting, along with AFL-CIO CWA staff representative Jenelle Blackmon, because they believe their union brothers and sisters working for the city are getting the short end of the stick in ongoing contract negotiations with the Taylor administration. Brantley said he believes the CWA union members are being treated unfairly.

“I work in property maintenance and I’m here this evening to bring to the attention of the council the plight that we’re going through with the city’s administration. We’ve been out of contract since the start of 2014,” said Brantley on Monday, Dec. 14. “Our local represents approximately 400 folks. We’re offered nothing and we’re asked to give back a lot. We’re asked for higher insurance; higher insurance co-pays; prescription; at the same time, we’re offered not one single cent of raises. It is unfair. The city workers that I represent are the guts of the city services … rendered to the citizens of East Orange, and the workers deserve a fair contract. Without any type of fair raise that was offered to other bargaining units that have settled already, you are less than where you are.”

Brantley said the administration has approached CWA Local 1077 with a contract proposal that stipulates “at least a quarter of our membership will be cut.” He said that begs the question: “How can the work get done with a quarter of the workforce being let go?”

“The quality would be affected by that,” said Brantley. “Don’t tell me that you want the city to be striving for a city of urban excellence and the workers are threatened with layoffs and no raise? How can you reach it without the workers? Privatization of services? Privatization does not work. Privatization has shown many times to fail.”

Blackmon said that doesn’t sound like “urban excellence.”

Firefighter Garrett Winn, president of FMBA Local 23 of the East Orange Fire Department, said he and fellow firefighters came to council meeting to tell members that the Fire Department’s newest members had not been paid for months, in a situation that seems to be similar to what happened to Newark Police Department recruits, who had not been paid, even though they had been enrolled at the police academy for weeks.

“We feel the city is using their raises and upgrades as a tactic for negotiations, which we think isn’t fair,” said Winn on Monday, Dec. 14. “We’ve been out of contract since 2013. The steps are, when you come in as a firefighter, you have seven steps before you can get to your top pay. So the first step is your probationary step, then the next step is your rookie step and then you get an increase each year for the next five to six years, until you reach your top pay, which would be your top salary.”
Winn said the probationary and rookie steps run together, “So that first step would be like your second level,” said Winn. “The problem now is that rookie class isn’t getting their second level and the second-year class isn’t being bumped up to their third level. The class of 2014-2015, they’re not getting their first bump. The class of 2013-2014, they’re not getting their second bump. The Newark firefighters weren’t getting their money either, then, all of a sudden, the story is in the paper and now they’re getting their checks. Friday, they’re supposed to get their back pay for like the last four weeks, or whenever they’re supposed to be getting paid.”
Winn said he and his fellow East Orange firefighters are hoping for a similar outcome as their counterparts in Newark as far as back pay. He said the Newark administration called it an oversight when it came to light that they had not been paying their employees, and he hopes that is not the case in East Orange.
“If a person is coming in everyday and working, how can you have an oversight and not pay them? An oversight is like a day or a week, not four weeks. And with our guys, one group is three months and one group is four months. How can you not pay guys that are contractually obligated to get a certain amount of money for three to four months? These guys have got families and it’s Christmas time.”
According to Winn, the Taylor administration has told his union it won’t entertain upgrades or raises until the contracts are negotiated. But, by the same token, is “canceling negotiating meetings,” which Will said in not fair.
“How can we get it done if you keep canceling meetings?” Winn asked. “The CWA does a lot. The city probably couldn’t run without the CWA. Besides police and fire, the CWA does everything in the city, so how could you not take care of them?”
City Council President Alicia Holman said, “Most union reps come here looking for support of City Council.” And she said the legislative body is always willing to stand by them in their time of need.
“Understand that, through City Council, one of our committees is a negotiating team,” said Holman on Monday, Dec. 14. “So we do have a group of council people, three to be exact, who are part of the negotiating team to help assist when necessary for the administration or for those union members. Our concern is that, when bargaining with the unions, we need to move that process speedily, as quickly and as fast as possible, because sometimes you may have to deal with retro-funding and stuff like that. So the quicker that we solve all these contracts, the better that it is for residents in the city of East Orange.”
Holman is chairwoman of the the council’s negotiating team, which also includes 3rd Ward Councilman Ted Green and 5th Ward Councilman Lonnie P. Hughes. Hughes also happens to be the finance committee chairman, which has allowed him to help craft the annual city budget for the last few years.
Third Ward Councilwoman Quilla Talmadge said she also understands why Brantley and Winn and their union members came to the council meeting on Monday, Dec. 14. However, she said that since the unions are already in negotiations with the administration and there’s not much the council can do until the two sides reach some sort of an agreement that is put before the council to approve, deny or revise.
“There’s nothing we can do, except that we can just ask the business administrator to try to speed up the negotiations and try to come to some agreement, that’s all,” said Talmadge on Monday, Dec. 14. “We have to ask. We can’t do that.”
Outgoing 5th Ward Councilman Lonnie P. Hughes said Talmadge was right, but only up to a certain point.
“The majority of (union) members live in the city, so we basically work for them,” said outgoing 5th Ward Councilman Lonnie P. Hughes. “They vote. I’m not appointed; I’m elected. Everybody else, all the nine council members, are elected, too. They’re our constituents, so when they come in and start saying they’re having problems, we have to listen to them. We’ve got to see what we can do. We’ve got to hear both sides of the story.”