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Madison Heights

December 20, 2013

Madison Heights police union files complaint against city

Union claims city is obstructing negotiation process

By Andy Kozlowski
C & G Staff Writer

MADISON HEIGHTS — The Madison Heights Police Officers Association — the largest of eight bargaining units in Madison Heights — has filed an unfair labor practices complaint with the Michigan Employment Relations Commission (MERC), claiming the city is not bargaining in good faith. They seek an injunction to stop the current negotiations for a contract that expired July 1, 2013.

According to Ed Malak, the union president, the city gave the union a list of requests for concessions at the first meeting. At the second meeting, the union reportedly returned with a list addressing the city’s concerns and sharing their own concerns.

Howard Shifman, the city’s labor counsel, allegedly said the two sides were heading in opposite directions, according to Malak. Then, at the third meeting, Shifman allegedly declared the two sides were at an impasse, without the city addressing any of the union’s concerns first.

Malak said the two sides left negotiations and went into mediation, where a third-party listens to both sides and tries to resolve the situation. But Malak said that when the mediator was finished, the list of concessions requested by the city had actually grown by about a dozen items.

Claiming that the city was issuing a take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum, rather than working with the union on a compromise, the union attorney decided to turn to MERC to appeal for a return to the bargaining table — a process that could take weeks or months.

“Our perspective is there’s been no give and take, and the city has been unwilling to respond to, or even consider, any of our proposals,” Malak said.

Shifman, for his part, took issue with the union’s account of events, saying it was riddled with inaccuracies. He also took issue with the union going public about a process that both parties reportedly agreed to keep off the record. 

The bottom line, Shifman said, is “after getting through a couple issues, we couldn’t get to an agreement … and they walked out 12 minutes into the meeting. That’s how we wound up in mediation. Everything (the union) is saying now is a diversion from the fact there are important issues for both sides, and we can’t reach an agreement.

“We’re looking for an agreement that can address our short-term issues, as well as our long-term legacy costs,” Shifman continued. “We want to make sure we can have a police department both today and tomorrow. You don’t make promises you can’t keep, and you don’t enter into agreements you can’t afford.”

The union says they are not being unreasonable, pointing to the fact that their last three contracts — two years each, some of them retroactive — were all concessionary, with a pay freeze, hiring freeze, and cuts to wages and benefits, including pension cuts, reduced holidays, and increased healthcare premiums, co-pay and deductibles. Also, of the city’s eight bargaining units, only the clerical union has settled — something the union claims is indicative of a problem with the process.

The union maintains that contracts should last longer, saying the current two-year model only benefits the attorneys who are paid to negotiate them, and that there are other cities where employees work on longer contracts.

The union is also pushing for “interest-based bargaining” — a form of negotiations recently attempted by Ferndale and Clawson. The city would tell the union they have a certain amount of money to spend and ask the union how the money should be allocated.

“That’s what we did, but they weren’t happy with the results,” Shifman responded.

He added that comparing Madison Heights to Ferndale and Clawson is a case of comparing apples to oranges — the city workforce and long-term legacy costs are different, so what works in one town won’t necessarily work in another.

Madison Heights has to take into consideration its own costs, Shifman said, and must also factor in unknown variables — most notably, possible looming changes to personal property tax in 2014, which would impact the city’s revenues.

“Each community is unique and different,” Shifman concluded.

Malak questioned the city’s need for labor counsel such as Shifman, saying that paying an attorney six figures is a waste when the union could hammer out a deal directly with the city manager if they met at the table.

Shifman responded that he’s been doing this for nearly 40 years, representing either the city’s employees or the city itself. He’s also no stranger to Madison Heights, he said; his roots in the city date back to his dad’s store on 12 Mile and John R, where he worked when he was in junior high.

But Malak says the use of “middlemen” is impeding the process.

“With (interest-based bargaining), you cut out all the fluff, all the posturing, all the unnecessary stuff,” Malak said. “We don’t need to have lawyers arguing back and forth; we don’t need to be paying outside influences. Both sides know what they need to have. So let’s talk it out.”