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IN THE WORST OF TIMES

March 29, 2009 - Ray Hall (Archive)
Amid the worst of times since the Great Depression a weary citizen might be forgiven for wondering aloud how far the economy must slide before the Jamestown City Council seriously questions a new labor contract for the police department.

Yet, the answer does not lie with this particular council. With only a few notable past exceptions, this council did not act differently from its predecessors. The union representing the Jamestown Police Department employees has a long history of out maneuvering city negotiators and city council in ways that the most ardent labor leader would envy.

While it remains easy to blame the police union for what appears to be excessive labor contract settlements citizens must realize union negotiators never once held a gun to the head of city negotiators or the city council. Among the moldering remains of organized labor the Kendall Club that represents police department employees stands out as an exemplary union. The union puts the interests of its members first in negotiations and never shrinks from binding arbitration where it has achieved an enviable record of success in lieu of going on strike to resolve a dispute.

Despite occasional flare ups, the police department has for years carefully cultivated relationships with city officials. At one time the Mayor was issued a police badge as was the Corporation Counsel—the city lawyer. While that may have been good public relations for the union the public perception was that each would consider themselves part of the department and remain reluctant to seriously pose a challenge.

The success of the local police union notwithstanding, where was management—the city administration—the negotiators in a time past when the police union successfully inserted a 4 on—2 off—work shift? Did not one city negotiator—one city administrator ever question the immediate consequences of agreeing to such a provision? Where was city council?

Did not one council member ever take out a calendar and count from January 1 how many extra days off each employee would get in addition to paid holidays? The answer is 13 days. Although my research is three years old, at the time I only heard of one other department in 934 that had a 4 on—2 off work schedule—Niagara Falls, NY. The consequences of adopting that shift requires at least two additional employees—police officers—to cover the gaps.

If the Jamestown Police Department had a manning requirement that followed the trends of those 934 police departments across the United States the Jamestown department would have been staffed with 54 sworn officers. Today, and I could stand corrected, our Jamestown Police Department has between 65 and 70 employees. Police department management and the union have successfully argued against reducing the force by natural attrition—retirements—despite a city-wide hiring freeze.

The public—the city council—cannot and should not be part of labor-management negotiations, but the public should expect more from council members. However, if and when the city administration ever balks at what is patently unfair in the Taylor Law or a binding arbitration, city council and the citizens must press for court action regardless of the outcome. Jamestown’s city council seems to have forgotten, or ignored, the fact that they are the legislative body that establishes city policy.

Despite a reputation for its partisan divide that is a point that has not gone unnoticed by the Chautauqua County Legislature. The partisan divide in county government is actually over emphasized; only one in one hundred resolutions is apt to attach partisanship. However, that partisan division has allowed the county legislature to discover its true role in county government, the realization that it remains the body that establishes county policy..

Jamestown’s city council can take a page from the county’s playbook—as a legislative body city council has the power to direct the administration. Frankly, there has been too much talk of getting along on city council and cooperating with whatever administration happens to be in office. Doing what is best for the city does not always mean getting along or cooperating and that goes for labor contracts negotiated between the City Administration and the Kendall Club. Regardless of the occasional head scratching “why did they do that,” our county legislature functions much in the way our founders would have liked. So can the Jamestown City Council, provided they have the will.

 
 

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