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Mill Creek employees’ union voices concerns about unilateral changes and work environment

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The Mill Creek employees’ union representative wrote a letter on October 21, 2016, voicing concerns regarding upcoming changes to his members’ jobs and their work environment.
Mill Creek City Hall sign. Photo credit: Lesley Van Winkle.

By Richard Van Winkle, News of Mill Creek.

The Mill Creek employees’ union representative wrote a letter on October 21, 2016, voicing concerns regarding upcoming changes to his members’ jobs and their work environment.

The City of Mill Creek’s contract with the city employees’ union, AFSCME Local 1811-M, expires at the end of 2016.

Negotiations between management and labor reached a point in May when the union requested formal interest based bargaining from the Washington State Public Employment Relations Commission.

It seems that communication between city management and labor started breaking down about then, resulting in an increased level of mistrust on both sides.

The union writes a letter to the Mill Creek City Council

Normally, contract negotiations between Mill Creek’s employee labor union and city management is conducted between the two parties and the Mill Creek City Council only gets brought into the mix when it’s time to approve the negotiated collective bargaining agreement.

However, communication between the union and Mill Creek’s city management was challenged to the point that AFSCME Local 1811-M Staff Representative Matt Miller felt he had to reach out to inform the city council of their concerns.

According to Miller, the breaking point occurred when City Manager Rebecca Polizzotto presented Mill Creek’s new organizational structure including revised job descriptions, job classifications, and pay plan to the city council at their regular October 11th meeting.

In an October 21, 2016, letter to the city council Miller wrote, “AFSCME Local 1811-M would like to raise several issues with the presentation that City Manager Polizzotto provided the City Council on Tuesday, October 11th, 2016.”

“The reason we would like to make the City Council aware is that we are concerned with the management style that is being conducted at the City of Mill Creek.”

“The Union has attempted to work with the City Manager on several issues to no avail or outright possible deception about the intentions of the City.”

According to Miller’s letter, the employee union and city management had agreed back in the spring to work together on two or three job description revisions.

Miller wrote that the changes announced by Polizzotto on October 11th took them by surprise, “City Manager announced to the surprise of the employees and the union that Management has performed all of that work without knowledge, consulting, or notification that employees' jobs were being altered and amended.”

“The announcement of wage cuts, frozen compensation, and the creation of new positions were all developed after the Management had agreed work with the Union on these same topics at bargaining.”

Miller also reported conducting a survey indicating that a majority of Mill Creek employees had “low or horrible morale” and that this was primarily due to “city management and concern about the future of the city.”

He went on to say that a significant number of employees reported in the survey, “seeing/or being the victim of bullying or harassment” and were looking for new jobs outside the city.

When reached by telephone last week Miller explained he reached out to the city council to inform rather than to use the letter as a negotiating tactic.

He went on to say, “Good communication is key to success in bargaining. We are frustrated with the lack of communication from management.”

“We conducted an anonymous survey so that our membership could respond without fear of retaliation and intimidation.”

“Ultimately what we want is a professional, respectful workplace based on communication and trust.”

The Mill Creek City Council’s response

The Mill Creek City Council has decided not to respond to Miller’s letter.

Reached by telephone, Mayor Pam Pruitt said, Talk to Rebecca (Polizzotto) or Laura (Orlando) about the letter. The city council is not going to take action.”

When asked about city employee morale Pruitt responded, “We’ve got people who are absolutely blossoming. I’m so excited about the future of our city.”

In response to allegations of bullying or harassment she said, “I’ve seen no evidence of this. It’s suspicious that this is coming out at the beginning of labor negotiations.”

City of Mill Creek Management’s response

Earlier this year Polizzotto formed a labor management team comprised of Finance Director Peggy Lauerman, Human Resources Director Laura Orlando, Police Chief Greg Elwin, and herself.

The team’s charter is to manage the city’s relationship between the city’s two labor unions; the Mill Creek Police Guild and AFSCME Local 1811-M.

The team met with me on Friday afternoon, October 28th, to discuss Miller’s letter.

Elwin confirmed that communication between the union and management could be improved, “Communication has to be a two-way street., The phone rings in both directions. I’m easy to get ahold of.”

“If I didn’t do my job to reach out to AFSCME and Matt, I’ll own that and will do a better job. But my phone rings too, so the union could have reached out to us in expressing some of these concerns before we got to this point.”

Elwin went on to say that the job classifications, job descriptions, and pay/classification plan discussed at the October 11th city council meeting were presented as drafts. The purpose of the presentation was to discuss proposed changes to city-wide organizational structure.

Polizzotto said that in the end both the city council and the union have to agree with the finalized documents. Budgetary timelines forced her to present the drafts to the city council before sharing them with the employees’ union during the upcoming interest based bargaining sessions.

When asked about the anonymous employee survey showing low morale Elwin commented, “I don’t see low morale in the employees that I interact with every day in the police department or out of the police department… I have not had anyone coming to me and saying they have a problem with what’s going on. It’s not something that’s prevalent.”

He went on to say that there are safe methods for employees to address issues in the workplace, “I would encourage any employee that has a concern specifically about the city manager and their perception of their treatment, that they should bring that up.”

“There are provisions in the collective bargaining agreement and federal whistle blower statutes. There are protections for an employee who wants to raise their hand and say ‘I’ve been mistreated’ or ‘This is improper.’”

“There is no protection for someone who perpetuates a rumor. So if there is somebody who feels they have been wronged, their best protection is to speak up.”

“If the complaint is about the city manager, she is not going to be the arbiter, she will completely recuse herself from that role.”

Polizzotto said she suspects the letter is part of the union’s negotiation tactics, “From our perspective, it is timing. The negotiations are about to start. If this is about communication, then why has everybody received this letter except the people who are actually at the bargaining table.”

“Nobody can get specific about an issue. Can you see from our perspective how that is a little suspect?”

Elwin said he wonders whether or not the survey responses are representative, “It depends on how that question is asked.”

“If the question is, ‘Is morale low around here?’ Then the answer might be, ‘Yes. I think morale is low. But, if you ask someone if their personal morale is low, you may get a different answer.  If an employee is doing well at work but they see others around them, it depends on how the question is asked. For example “I’m having a good time, but morale is low because I know people who are disgruntled and unhappy.’”

Interest based bargaining between the City of Mill Creek and AFSCME Local 1811-M is scheduled for later in November.

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