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Reed, Slay and labor tangle over intent, wording of document signed by new workers

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 18, 2013 - St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay’s staff has withdrawn and is revising a document that all new employees have to sign, in the wake of controversy touched off by the mayor’s chief rival for re-election, Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed.

Slay ordered the change after meeting early Monday with union leaders representing the Greater St. Louis Labor Council and the St. Louis Building and Construction Trades Council. Both groups back the mayor in his re-election bid.

The document in question states that new employees should be aware that their benefits – including pensions, health insurance and vacations – were not guaranteed and could be changed at any time. 

All sides agree that’s true for workers not represented by a union. But Reed and Carpenters Union business manager JoAnn Williams say the new wording isn’t clear and implies that the lack of guarantees applies to union workers as well. (Union contracts can be changed but only through negotiation.)

Williams added that she also was concerned that all new employees were required to sign such a document before they were hired, which is before any union representation kicks in.

The Carpenters Union, which backs Reed, represents about 1,000 city workers, Williams said.  Most of the region's other unions have endorsed Slay.

Reed’s campaign asserted before the news conference that the document reflected “the most draconian anti-employee policy in the history of the city of St. Louis.”

Slay's chief of staff Jeff Rainford and supportive labor leaders – including Labor Council president Bob Soutier – disagree, maintaining that the facts remain the same.

“Nothing’s changed,’’ said Soutier. “Our concern was that benefits may be in a position to be modified in a different form than in the past. That’s not the case.”

The only problem, said Soutier, was the document’s wording, which "was a little wordy" and appeared to raise more confusion, not less.

Labor leaders also said new hires also might be disturbed by the phrase at the top of the document's page, in capital letters, that tells would-be employees that if they have any questions about the form, "PLEASE CONSULT WITH AN ATTORNEY BEFORE SIGNING."

Document prompted by firefighters dispute

The document had been drafted by deputy City Counselor Michael Garvin, in response to an apparent dispute with the city’s unionized firefighters, who have been at odds with Slay over pension matters for more than a year.

Slay's chief of staff Jeff Rainford said that some labor representatives had told new firefighters that their benefits could never be changed, not even by future collective bargaining agreements.

The firefighters union also has endorsed Reed in the March 5 primary.

The new document was in the new-employee packets given to new city employees since mid-January.  The new employees included about 20 firefighters and a couple people hired in other departments. "There haven't been many,'' Rainford said.

Rainford acknowledged that the new document was “poorly worded’’ and apparently was causing a new wave of confusion.

Slay agreed. He told Soutier and Jeff Aboussie with the Building and Construction Trades Council  that Garvin will work with a St. Louis labor lawyer, Sally Barker, to come up with better language.

In the meantime, the city will revert to the old informational document, Rainford said.

Reed’s campaign circulated copies of internal City Hall emails indicating that the mayor’s office, notably Rainford and chief of operations Eddie Roth, had known for weeks about the possible confusion produced by the rewritten document.

Reed told reporters at the news conference that he wouldn’t believe that the document had been rescinded until he gets information in writing that back up what Rainford announced.

Rainford, in turn, contended that Reed “is trying to create anxiety in (city workers’) minds and I think that is wrong.”

Reed also contended that the dispute hinted that Slay may support “right to work,’’ a proposed law – in place in some states -- that bars closed-union shops, which require that all workers pay dues if a majority vote to join a union.

Rainford said that Slay definitely opposed “right to work” – anathema to unions -- and contended that Reed was irresponsible to bring up the matter in an unrelated dispute.

Williams with the Carpenters Union said it was fair to bring up “right to work” because the disputed document appeared to ignore labor agreements.

Soutier and Aboussie said they were satisfied with the assurances from the mayor and are willing to move on. Both said they were sticking with Slay but emphasized their good past relations with Reed.

"He's a politician,'' Soutier said. "You can't blame a dog catcher for going out and catching dogs."

Soutier added that the controversy also reaffirmed why workers should be in a union.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.