Did Valerie Lemmie Spark a Union Campaign?

About 75 percent of the employees of the city of Cincinnati have long been unionized, so why are the rest forming their own union now? The answer is wages, benefits and job security. The city e

Aug 8, 2002 at 2:06 pm
Jymi Bolden

City Manager Valerie Lemmie ended overtime pay for non-union city workers. It seems they won't be non-union much longer.

About 75 percent of the employees of the city of Cincinnati have long been unionized, so why are the rest forming their own union now?

The answer is wages, benefits and job security.

The city employs about 6,000 people. Police officers and firefighters have their own unions. At least 2,400 other city employees — mostly blue-collar workers — are represented by the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which represents more than 43,000 public and non-profit workers in Ohio.

The 1,400 non-union city employees, who generally work in offices, have talked before about creating a union. But these middle managers, professionals and clerical workers didn't act until City Manager Valerie Lemmie eliminated overtime pay for most of them.

A majority of the non-union employees — city planners, graphic designers, dentists and others — have signed petitions requesting certification by the Ohio State Employment Relations Board (SERB), the first step toward unionization, according to attorney Bill Gustavson, who represents the group's leaders.

"My understanding is that this is the first time there's been a concentrated effort (to unionize)," he says.

The employees mostly want to make sure there aren't unexpected changes in benefits, salaries and working conditions, Gustavson says.

That is exactly what happened May 8, when Lemmie ended overtime pay for nearly all of the non-union employees. The contracts of unionized city workers, by contrast, don't allow that type of unilateral action.

Lemmie acted in response to an 8-0 vote by city council to re-examine overtime policies and more closely align them with policies in the private sector.

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), passed in 1938, requires employers to pay overtime to employees who work more than 40 hours in a week. The law generally allows employers to exempt managers and supervisors.

City Councilman Pat DeWine and his staff scrutinized payroll records and found that in 2001, 586 city employees not covered by the FLSA earned $2.3 million in overtime. Of those, 55 took home more than $10,000 in overtime. Some earned up to 150 percent of their regular salaries with overtime, according to DeWine's office. For example, a sewer supervisor received $31,251 in overtime on a base salary of $54,751 — a 56 percent boost.

The city's overtime total for 2001 was $16.2 million, including $5.91 million for the police department. City workers represented by AFSCME earned $6.45 million in overtime.

Lemmie proposed cutting nearly all of the $2.3 million in non-union overtime. In an 8-1 vote, council agreed. Lemmie's error, Gustavson says, was ending overtime for nearly all of the 1,400 employees, some of whom are physical therapists, city planners and accountants — people who obviously aren't supervisors.

"Overtime isn't a gift from the employer," he says.

It's compensation for extra time spent at work, Gustavson says.

The non-union employees are also miffed about rumors that department heads have received $3,000 bonuses, Gustavson says. But Rodney Prince, director of human resources, says it didn't happen. The rumor is part of a campaign to win support for the union, Prince believes.

Once a union petition is filed with SERB, the city must post a notice for 21 days, giving employees a chance to object. SERB examines and certifies petition signatures and decides whether the employees qualify as a union. That depends on a series of questions: Do the employees share common interests? Do they have similar wages, hours and other working conditions? What effect would the design of the proposed group have on the city's efficiency?

The city can object to the makeup of the proposed union or ask SERB to make the employees vote on union representation.

By state law, unions can't include department heads, supervisors, interns and certain employees involved with the city administration.

Gustavson believes the city will object to the proposed union. Prince says Lemmie will probably decide soon.

A union leader in Dayton during Lemmie's tenure there as city manager says Cincinnati employees should organize now, because she will probably try to lay off or replace city employees with cheaper workers.

"If these employees are smart, they will seek some sort of collective bargaining representation," says Thomas Ritchie Sr., the Dayton director for Ohio Council 8 of AFSCME.

His Cincinnati counterpart — Cincinnati director Robert Turner — agrees.

"I think they're wise to seek representation," he says. "I would hope that when the time comes to make that decision, they would look at AFSCME."

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