Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Fort Wayne lifts ban on union reps speaking to leaders for employees, opens path to collective bargaining

Fort Wayne City Hall
Rebecca Green
Fort Wayne City Hall

For the first time in almost 10 years, non-public safety city employees in Fort Wayne can speak to Mayor Tom Henry and city department heads through union representation.

The move opens the door to collective bargaining for city workers who are not police officers or firefighters. These talks are not the same as collective bargaining, though. The talks are what’s called collective consultation.

Indiana University Labor and Employment Law Professor Ken Dau-Schmidt said there’s a significant difference, “because there is no right to strike, and there’s no right to take recourse to arbitration or anything like that,”

“All it is basically is the city saying ‘we will talk to our workers on a collective basis. We will talk to their representatives about a variety of issues,’” Dau-Schmidt said.

Nine years ago, the Fort Wayne City Council banned both collective bargaining and collective consultation in an effort to cut costs.

Councilman Tom Didier (R-3rd) said cutting takes the burden of paying union dues off of the taxpayer which saves the city money. Sixth District Councilwoman Sharon Tucker (D-6th) said banning collective consultation saved the city nothing in the broader perspective.

“We no longer had to settle claims,” Tucker said. “Then, perhaps, we saved dollars, but what did we lose on the other side, right? We lost really good employees who just said ‘I’m done. I don’t want to deal with this anymore.’ or we lost intellectual knowledge.”

Tucker was referring to turnover in the city’s workforce over reported workplace bullying.

During the debate over the matter, multiple council members suggested city workers did not need union representation to address grievances.

Under the current law at the time of the council meeting, they could hire an attorney to represent them in those conversations, but Tucker pushed back on that thought referencing the conversation on city wage increases that immediately preceding the collective consultation discussion.

“We just talked about how important wages are to retaining city staff,” Tucker said during the meeting. "Our workforce cannot afford an attorney who would be willing and able to represent them against a municipal government”

Tucker also questioned if attorney retainment was the best way to resolve workplace grievances.

“Is this really the best way to address this?” Tucker said. “Are we really going to put attorneys between our city employees and our city leaders whenever there is an issue in the workplace? I certainly hope not.”

Without getting into specifics out of respect for employee privacy, Northeast Indiana AFL-CIO Labor Chapter President Lloyd Osborne, who has spoken to the city council multiple times since the body banned collective consultation, said bullying is becoming systemic in the city’s workforce.

“A supervisor or a department head goes to an employee and tells the employee that they’ve heard that he or she did something, and then they said ‘you can accept a two-day suspension or a three-day suspension,’ depending on whatever they want to say ‘or you can take it downtown and risk losing your job,’” Osborne said. “‘If we go downtown, I’m going to ask for termination. If you just accept it and sign it here and take the two days off, that’ll be the end of it.’ That’s the kind of bullying that’s happening in the departments.”

Osborne said that kind of workplace bullying is creating turnover in the city’s workforce, costing the city time and money in hiring replacements.

Didier and Councilman Thomas Freistroffer (At-large), both Republicans, did not support lifting the ban because they do not want to bring collective bargaining back to the bulk of the city’s workforce.

Didier, the only remaining council member who supported the original ban almost ten years ago, maintained the ban saves the city money and that the solution to workplace bullying is simple.

“There’s cost savings involved in it, but I don’t have those numbers in front of me, and Dr. Crawford is no longer alive to give the specifics of what had happened and why we did it ten years ago,” Didier said in an interview. “My viewpoint is that public sector unions just give city employees, it gives them more leverage against the tax-paying people. I don’t see the need to have the public sector unions. If you have a good HR department and these particular incidents come up, you should be able to work through them.”

Dau-Schmidt said the idea of banning collective consultation as a cost saving measure doesn’t make sense.

“It’s not clear to me that this is going to raise costs at all,” Dau-Schmidt said. “In fact, it could save money because if you hear what the workers’ concerns are about bullying or anything else and you address them, you’re going to hang on to long-term valuable employees that you want to hang on to.”

The day after the city council passed the measure to lift the ban, Didier, who is also the GOP’s mayoral nominee and Henry’s opponent in November, professed the issue was not with a lack of union representation, but with the mayor not addressing workplace grievances.

“From what I heard from Lloyd last night, the (mayor) isn’t listening,” Didier said. “If somebody’s wanting to talk to the fourth floor in regards to a suit because I got, wrongfully, a day off or a three-day layoff because I did something that they say I did, and I have no way of combating it, then that’s a problem.”

Henry said workplace grievance cases normally do not reach his office, but when they do, they are resolved.

“I’m a part of the orientation process of every employee that comes to work for the city,” Henry said. “I meet with them, and I share with them my philosophy, the mission statement of the organization and so on, and I tell them that if they go through that grievance process, even though I am not part of the grievance process itself, it normally ends in HR or the Law Department, that they should not be afraid to send me an email.”

The measure ended up with bipartisan support, as councilmembers Paul Ensley (R-1st) and Jason Arp (R-4th) joined the democrats on the council in voting yes. Arp said he was voting yes because it was time for a conversation.

“This isn’t providing for a collective bargaining agreement,” Arp said. “This gives the opportunity for a discussion.”

Arp said it would be up to the next council to decide if it wants to negotiate and/or accept a collective bargaining agreement.

The measure passed 6 - 2 with Councilman Russ Jehl (R-2nd) absent.

Tony Sandleben joined the WBOI News team in September of 2022.