Barack Obama still was president
when Springfield, Mo., city employees
voted in the fall of 2015 to join Springfield Local 753.
This summer, nearly four years later, the bargaining unit approved its first contract with city officials. If that seems like a long time, well, it is, said Local 753 Business Manager Tony Parrish.
“Oh my Lord, it dragged on forever,” Parrish said, while acknowledging that initial contract negotiations are sometimes a laborious process.
Thankfully, Parrish's and Local 753 members’ patience and fortitude paid off in the end.
The 3-year deal calls for wage increases that will put the workers more in line with their counterparts in cities of similar size. Springfield, which has a population of about 170,000, is sometimes referred to as the “Queen City of the Ozarks” and is near the tourist mecca of Branson, Mo.
The contract also provides improved benefits to individual groups of workers. For instance, Dustin Garner, an arborist for the city for the last 13 years and now a Local 753 steward, noted that outdoors workers saw large increases in stipends to purchase work clothes.
Garner, who served on the negotiating committee after being a leader in the organizing process, said he wasn’t surprised negotiations took as long as they did.
“It takes a while to get something done,” he said. “This was all new to us. It wasn’t like we had a copy of an old contract and we could use it as a template. We were kind of learning as we went.”
Parrish said the city’s human resources director retired just as negotiations were set to begin and Springfield officials didn’t want to start negotiations until a new one was hired. That pushed formal discussions back to 2017. The city also hired outside counsel for negotiations instead of relying on its own attorneys.
No detail apparently was too small. Parrish said the city even wanted language on how many stewards Local 753 would have in the bargaining unit.
“I would suggest things like, ‘Let’s meet again next week’ and they would say, ‘Oh that’s too soon, we’re not going to be ready, let’s do it again four weeks down the road.’ So much time was going by, but I can’t physically make them meet me. It shouldn’t have taken near as long as it did, but it was just a combination of things.”
Another thing that Parrish suspects hampered the process: a controversial Missouri law designed to damage public-sector unions.
The state Legislature passed and disgraced former Gov. Eric Greitens signed House Bill 1413 in 2017 that says union-covered public employees must opt in for their bargaining agent to be able to withdraw membership fees from their paycheck. Historically, union dues are withdrawn when an employee becomes part of a bargaining unit.
Earlier this year, a Missouri circuit judge ruled the law can’t go into effect until the conclusion of a lawsuit filed by a group of public employees challenging it.
The same Legislature, with Greitens’ signature, also passed a right-to-work bill, but that was overturned in a statewide referendum in August 2018.. Greitens had resigned his position by then after becoming embroiled in a sexual misconduct scandal and criminal investigation.
Parrish said the specter of that paycheck law also likely slowed negotiations. Springfield officials felt like they had an advantage at the bargaining table, he said. They refused any attempts for the new unit to be a closed shop.
“In my opinion, that law was worse than right-to-work,” Parrish said.
Eleventh District International Representative Darrell McCubbins, who assisted with the negotiations, credited Parrish and his staff for keeping lines of communication open with bargaining unit members during the 4-year period. The workers approved the contract by a nearly 2-1 margin and 24 decided to become A members.
“It was a good process, but there’s still a lot of work to be done to pull them together as a unit,’ McCubbins said. “People are spread out and working in all different locations. Tony did a very good job of going out and keeping in contact and working with them.”
Making sure as many of the new employees join Local 753 as possible is the priority. About 300 employees are covered by the contract.
“We’ve got some pretty good people here,” Garner said. “They’ve heard from a lot of other people who are trying to politicize unions, and that’s a shame. I’m hoping as time goes by, they’ll realize it’s not about politics. It’s about having a voice. It’s a benefit, and I hope they will see that.”
Road maintenance crews and workers at the parks department and Springfield airport are now represented by Local 753. So are staff from the janitorial, sanitation and public works departments.
Local 753 has long represented Springfield utility workers, who are governed by an appointed board instead of the city council, which oversees most city employees.