Union requests bigger raise for city workers

May. 22, 2013 @ 08:11 PM

A union that some city workers belong to has asked officials to consider adding $1,000 to the regular cost of living pay increases that the city gives employees in fiscal 2013-14.

The request came from the Durham City Workers Union, an offshoot of UE 150, a statewide group that’s part of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America.

Union leaders said city workers “have lost a lot of economic ground over the years by not receiving wage increases that at least match the rate of inflation.”

They, like many other workers, “are drowning” financially because their “wages have not kept up with high gas, food and other prices,” they said in a letter relayed this week to City Manager Tom Bonfield and the City Council.

The letter was sent after Bonfield told reporters his fiscal 2013-14 budget request would seek money for raises averaging about 2 percent for non-sworn city workers. He’s seeking bigger raises, in the range of 3 to 5 percent, for police and firefighters.

Bonfield responded to the message on Tuesday, saying 2 percent was all the city is able to afford “without cutting other programs and jobs.”

Federal statistics bear out the union’s contention that worker salaries since the 2008 market crash have trailed the inflation rate, although not necessarily at the rate UE 150 activists claimed.

The city didn’t hand out any permanent raises in fiscal 2009-10 or 2010-11. Workers did get a one-time $1,000 bonus in the latter half of fiscal 2010-11 that, unlike a normal raise, didn’t change their base pay.

Since then, Bonfield has recommended and the council has approved annual raises averaging 2 percent across the non-sworn workforce. The actual amount any one worker receives varies with his or her performance appraisal.

Police and firefighters have generally gotten higher raises, in keeping with council-approved policy that favors channeling more money into public safety departments to prevent other Triangle communities from cherry-picking experienced personnel.

Inflation, meanwhile, as of April was running at 1.1 percent compared to the same month last year, according to a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics index that counts prices of food and fuel.

Prices were up 2.3 percent in the early spring of 2012, 3.2 percent in 2011 and 2.2 percent in 2010. But in the spring of 2009, a recession year, they actually fell at a rate of 0.7 percent.

UE 150’s inflation estimates didn’t match any of those numbers. It was not clear, from the union’s letter, what it used as a source of data.

City Council members over the winter approved fiscal 2013-14 budget guidelines that called for a raise averaging 3 percent for the non-sworn workforce.

The union’s letter addressed 16 other points, among them a request for a 50 percent employee discount in city Parks and Recreation Department programs and a two-year “automatic recall” for any workers that are laid off.

Bonfield’s budget envisions eliminating five currently occupied positions. But he told the union that none of affected workers should lose “a job within the city workforce.”

Four will be switched to other jobs, and the fifth is retiring.

As for the recreation-program discount, Bonfield said the city’s ethics policy bars giving employees “preferential treatment” in such services.

The union’s letter also weighed in on a dispute involving the Police Department, calling for the immediate release of Carlos Riley Jr., a 21-year-old accused of shooting a police officer in an altercation late last year.

Riley’s case has drawn attention because he’s related to a prominent, Durham-born civil rights lawyer.

The attorney defending him has claimed the officer who was injured, Kelly Stewart, shot himself in the leg as he was drawing his weapon on Riley.

Bonfield said the Riley matter is not one between Durham city workers.

N.C. Department of Correction records indicate that Riley is currently serving a 90-day state prison sentence. It apparently began in March when authorities revoked the probation he’d received in 2011 in connection with a prior conviction for selling cocaine.

He is on track to be released from prison on June 10. But he has a June 3 court date in Durham on the charges resulting from the incident with Stewart.