22 months later, contract talks between city of Santa Fe, union at near-standstill

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·6 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Oct. 17—Negotiations on a new contract between the administration of Mayor Alan Webber and a union that represents hundreds of city workers started in earnest in January 2020 — five months before a collective bargaining agreement approved under a previous administration was set to expire.

Though there was a short break near the onset of the pandemic, the city's management team and leaders of Local 3999 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees have been meeting almost every Thursday since to try to hash out a deal.

But 22 months later, the two sides are still haggling over the details of a new contract and have hit a near-standstill.

"We're almost at the point where it's not productive anymore," said Gil Martinez, the union's vice president. "I don't think we even know where to go at this point."

Exactly what management and the union can't see eye to eye about is a closely guarded secret because negotiations are supposed to be confidential.

"I can talk in general, but I can't give you details of what they're stripping or anything like that," said Martinez, who seemed to indicate the union doesn't want to give up anything.

"We have the contract that we have because we've worked decades to get to that point. You know, every time you go to negotiations, you try to better the contract, so there's a lot of things in our contract that took us 25 years to get," he said.

The city declined a request for interviews with Human Resources Director Bernadette Salazar and other members of the city's management team involved in the negotiations.

"Pursuant to the Public Employees Bargaining Act, collective bargaining sessions shall be closed and therefore it is not appropriate to discuss at this time," city spokesman Dave Herndon wrote in an email.

Union President Gilbert Baca, who has been placed on paid administrative leave and faces possible termination over alleged timecard fraud, also declined to disclose the holdup in contract negotiations.

"We really can't tell you nothing because we're at the table," Baca said. "We're tight-lipped because if I tell you something and it gets to them, then they're going to file [an accusation of] bargaining in bad faith for me going to the media, because this has happened before."

Herndon wrote the existing contract with Local 3999 "has and will continue" to be in effect until it is replaced by a new agreement.

"We continue to come to an agreement with AFSCME when it comes to the compensation of our hard working employees and have successfully negotiated three amendments, all [of which] provided a financial benefit to members," he wrote.

The amendments include up to $2,100 in retention incentive pay for transit employees, $933,857 to fund salary increases to implement the classification and compensation study, $223,000 for equity pay increases and 4 percent salary increases this year.

While the contract required a classification and compensation survey, it did not require salary increases, Hendon wrote.

"This is the first time in at least 13 years that the City has actually implemented a study that was conducted," he wrote.

The existing three-year contract, from July 2017 through June 2020, included annual 2 percent base rate salary adjustments, as well as a number of perks for employees, such as free use of city buses and the Genoveva Chavez Community Center.

Employees who perform certain types of jobs receive additional benefits. For example, workers who are required to wear a uniform get a $500 uniform allowance, plus $200 for footwear, and swim instructors and lifeguards are entitled to $600 each year to purchase swimwear, T-shirts, shorts and sweatpants, as well as up to $100 for "aquatic/amphibious deck shoes."

The contract offers health insurance benefits that have been dubbed "the Cadillac of plans," which the mayor and city councilors also are entitled to receive.

The city has previously refused to disclose which elected officials are taking advantage of those health insurance benefits, citing the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPPA.

Under the existing contract, the city pays 76.25 percent of the cost of medical insurance premiums, 65 percent of dental, and up to $175 annually for prescription eyewear and contacts.

The contract was negotiated under the administration of former Mayor Javier Gonzales, who declined to say whether the benefits were generous. He wrote in a text message he had made a commitment to his employer, the St. Vincent Hospital Foundation, which he joined last year as vice president and chief development officer, "to stay out of commenting when it involves city news."

Connie Derr, executive director of AFSCME Council 18, did not return a message seeking comment. Council 18 is the umbrella organization for local AFSCME unions around the state, including Local 3999.

In the past, union leaders have complained Local 3999 isn't getting the representation it needs or deserves from AFSCME Council 18.

Martinez said Local 3999's membership has shrunk in recent years under the Webber administration.

"Currently, we have approximately 450 members with over 200 vacant union positions that this administration has refused to fill," he said. "Historically, the union has always had 700 members, give or take a few. [But] the city's blue-collar workers are carrying a huge load just to keep the city afloat."

For example, Martinez said, the city used to employ about 145 parks workers before a series of annexations on Santa Fe's south side.

"Now, with the annexation and new parks, trails and street medians, we have about 45 parks workers," he said. "The city has grown from 64,000 residents to 88,000 residents and our staff has shrunk tremendously."

So has the goodwill between the union and the Webber administration.

The two sides have had a rocky relationship marked by grievance hearings, a vote of no confidence in the mayor and a dispute over furloughs the administration implemented in violation of the union's contract last year.

The furloughs, which Local 3999 leaders have said hurt workers on the bottom rung of the pay ladder the most, drove a deep wedge between the mayor and the union.

The existing collective bargaining agreement allows management to "take such actions as may be necessary to carry out the mission of the employer that might not implicitly follow all the articles" in the agreement in emergency situations.

But it also states affected workers must receive a minimum of 28 days of advance written notice if a furlough is implemented, a provision the administration failed to follow.

The furlough fight went to the New Mexico Public Employees Labor Relations Board, and a hearing officer recommended in early July the city repay $521,231 for lost wages and accruals to members of Local 3999 and a handful of employees with the Buckman Direct Diversion.

Martinez, the union vice president, said Local 3999 and the city's management team have reached agreement on what he called the "boilerplate things" in a new contract.

"But now that it's dealing with specifics, we're in complete opposite ends," he said. "The city is way to one side, and we're completely on the other side, and when it comes to trying to come up with a deal, it's been very, very difficult, and here we are 22 months into it."

Over the last three months, Martinez said, he didn't think the two sides "have even agreed on one tiny little word."

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting