“Right-to-work” ordinance makes union membership optional

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – As Fort Wayne city council approved a new three-year contract for firefighters Tuesday night, it also approved an amendment to the collective bargaining ordinance that would make union membership optional for employees.

“It was a compromise we were prepared to make,” Jeremy Bush, president of Fort Wayne Professional Firefighters Local 124, said. “They approved our contract and, in exchange, they wanted compulsory union dues out of the contract and a letter of agreement was struck.”

Tuesday night Councilman Mitch Harper (R-4th District) introduced changes to the bill that would have repealed collective bargaining for the public safety unions. Councilman John Crawford (R-At-Large) introduced that proposal in May and it had been tabled. Harper changed it to take out doing away with collective bargaining and added in the optional union membership.

“The state statute says police and fire are entitled to meet and confer. That essentially lays out items that are very much like collective bargaining, so that’s why city council kept intact the collective bargaining for police and fire,” Harper said.

While the public safety collective bargaining ordinance didn’t have language that required employees to pay union dues to keep their jobs, the contract for the fire department does.

“It’s been in there since the infancy of our contract. All our members weren’t worried about that. No one has ever feared that they were going to lose their job,” Bush said.

When the contract comes up for renewal again in three years, that language will be removed. In the meantime, a letter of agreement drafted by the union says the union will follow the new ordinance and not enforce that clause.

“It’s what can happen when you work together,” Harper said.

Last month, city council repealed collective bargaining for the seven non-public safety unions.

“I’m very glad the firefighters were able to secure their contract, but I had hoped council would have been more open to our suggestions to allow us to also have collective bargaining in place and workers have a voice at work,” Lloyd Osborne, the agent for International Union of Operating Engineers Local 399, said. “We had met with all council members and offered all kinds of different solutions. We brought other ways to deal with this and we even offered that solution to them and it fell on deaf ears. They would not listen to anything we had to say.”

Compulsory union membership and dues was a main point of contention for Harper throughout the entire collective bargaining debate.

“I don’t believe it’s fair to workers and it sends a bad signal to businesses who may want to locate in our area where public employment is not in-sync with the right-to-work law. No one addressed it until we were facing the veto override. I had those conversations with Lloyd and we had great talks and I respect him greatly, but they didn’t really offer that until late in the process,” Harper said.

Councilman Geoff Paddock (D-5th District) has voted against every measure that would do away with collective bargaining and he voted against Harper’s ordinance changing compulsory union dues.

“I didn’t feel the need to go in and tinker further with this,” Paddock said. “A lot of folks look at union dues in a negative way. I look at it as a positive. The unions are fighting for city employees and working hard that their working conditions are good and salaries are good. We hear success stories a lot where unions work with management and add more to the workforce and more protection for workers. To pay a small amount each month, just like paying neighborhood association dues to help the values of your properties, I don’t think that’s too much to ask. I think that system should remain intact.”

The ordinance now goes to Mayor Tom Henry’s desk. His office said it’s still reviewing what happened at council Tuesday night and didn’t have a comment on Wednesday.

Osborne said changing the dues structure doesn’t affect the non-public safety unions.

“When they stripped our collective bargaining rights away we’re no longer in the ordinance. The union itself is not going away, but the members that worked in the city of Fort Wayne do not have to pay dues anymore because there’s no way for us to represent them on working conditions,” he said.

Still, the unions aren’t giving up hope for some kind of arrangement that would bring back some representation.

“The mayor has said publicly he’s working on an executive order or a memorandum of understanding to keep us in place so workers would have a voice at work and we’re following up with the mayor and having meetings with him and his administration,” Osborne said.

Click here for complete coverage of the collective bargaining debate in Fort Wayne. 

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