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Unions Fight City’s Forced Time Off Plan

Friday January 30, 2004

Chanting “Hey! Hey! Ho! Ho! M-T-O has got to go!”, an overflow crowd of city workers told the Berkeley City Council Tuesday night that a city manager’s mandatory time off (M-T-O) proposal to help close the budget gap wasn’t acceptable to the city’s non-public safety unions. 

The dispute surfaced on the same night the public learned that union officials and representatives of the city manager’s office have been holding productive weekly meetings over the past few months to discuss the budget crisis—resulting in one agreement that could save Berkeley close to half a million dollars a year in workers’ compensation costs. 

Earlier, at the council’s 5 p.m. working session, City Manager Phil Kamlarz gave the grim current details of Berkeley’s present budget problems, reporting that the city faces a budget shortfall of close to $10 million for all funds for the upcoming fiscal year (fiscal year 2005), rising to a $19.5 million gap by fiscal year 2009. 

Kamlarz wants to close the budget gap with a combination of cost-cutting and revenue-raising plans, including putting a possible tax-increase measure on the November ballot. The council will discuss the proposals in a series of public working sessions between now and late March. 

Among the more controversial proposals is the possible consolidation or elimination of some city commissions—but perhaps not as controversial as the mandatory city close-for-a-day idea. The fire on that one came at 7 p.m. Tuesday night, when more than 100 purple-sweatshirt-clad workers representing Berkeley’s various Service Employees International Union locals packed council chambers to capacity, with uniformed police officers blocking the stairway to keep the overflow crowd from coming up. 

The union members turned out to protest Kamlarz’ request for authorization to “meet and confer” with SEIU officials over mandatory one-day-a-month city shutdowns. The city manager projected the proposed shutdowns would generate $1.2 million a year in savings, once implemented at the start of the new fiscal year in July. 

When Councilmember Gordon Wozniak said a failure to adopt such cost-cutting measures might lead to the more drastic step of permanent layoffs, several union members in the audience called out, “Lay them off!” 

Councilmembers authorized the negotiations on an 8-1 vote, with Kriss Worthington dissenting after he was turned down on his request for the “meet and confer” language to be removed—language he said “targets certain employees in what could be perceived as an antagonistic way”—and suggested that the city manager should “explore the whole range of budget options” with the unions, calling that “a more nuanced and respectful approach.” 

Following the vote, union members filed out of the meeting with calls of “This ain’t over,” “I didn’t think this was a kingdom,” and “Remember who got you in, Tom. We can take you out.” 

Kamlarz said after the meeting that the “meet and confer” language in the resolution was necessary to put the unions on notice about the mandatory time off proposals. Without the language, he said, one-day city closings could not be implemented. 

Earlier, City Building Inspector Sharon Crosby, representing Service Employees International Union Local 535, told the council, “I want to thank the city for really working with the unions over the past several months. I really want to stress that they have been meeting cooperatively with us.” 

But to applause and shouts of approval from the assembled union members, Crosby went on to oppose the mandatory time off proposal. “We’d like to ask [the council] to not give authorization to open our contract. We’d like to look at efficiency. We’d like to look at reductions within the departments before you go to M-T-O. I just think that it’s a matter of respect. To ask us to give up wages and then continue to come to work with a smile on our faces—that just makes it hard. We would like to work cooperatively with the city in terms of reducing the budget, but M-T-O is not the way. We think that V-T-O [voluntary time off] is the way to go.” 

Sandra Lewis, East Bay Regional Vice President of SEIU Local 790, said, “We all know that there has to be savings. But using the word ‘mandatory’ is not going to get us there. We have been building up a relationship with the city manager to work together to solve our problems. Putting that whip over our head and using that word ‘mandatory’ is just going to put us further apart from each other. If you authorize the city manager to mandate that we take this one day off, I guarantee you, you’re not going to save any money.” 

In the earlier budget working session, the city manager’s office released a 45-page document giving the first details of proposed cuts to Berkeley’s upcoming budget. Cuts ranged from the reducing the “number and quality of meals served to the council and staff as part of council meetings” (at a savings of $3,000) to the elimination of some 90 full-time or part-time city jobs, of which nearly 50 are currently filled. 

The proposed reductions amount to a little over $6 million a year in savings, with outgoing Budget Director Paul Navazio stressing that this left a “$2 million to $3 million recurring problem thereafter,” even after the 2005 budget is balanced. 

Tuesday was Navazio’s last official Berkeley City Council meeting before he leaves to take a similar job in Davis.