A Firm Client Prevails Twice in Interest Arbitration

Aside from the desire to bring you the most up to date information on public labor happenings in Minnesota, the main reason we pay such close attention to the latest interest arbitration awards is to better serve our clients.  We were happy to use the knowledge we’ve acquired in not one, but two recent interest arbitrations between Sherburne County and two different MNPEA groups.

In Sherburne County, the employer had set pattern wage-range adjustments for 2019-2021 with nine of its 11 bargaining units for 2.5% per year.  Aside from this, the County provided a pattern health insurance package, an additional holiday, increases in life insurance, uniform allowance and night shift differential to its groups, along with minor language changes.  Based on the pattern settlements across the metropolitan area and greater Minnesota counties, the County was very competitive with its total package offer.

However, the County’s Correctional Officer group sought additional benefits beyond the usual package, based on what it deemed to be an unacceptable situation where employees hired during a certain time period were temporarily paid at a higher rate than more senior employees.  The parties referred to this phenomenon as “leapfrogging.”

The Union’s proposals to fixing this problem was for the County to make upwards of 3% in wage increases to various employees within the bargaining unit and adjustments of employee anniversary dates.  The County was not as interested in this solution.

The key phrase for this arbitration (and also a phrase that was frequently in headlines at the time of the hearing) was quid pro quo.  More specifically, the Union was requesting the County undertake great expense to rectify an issue the Union willingly entered into just five years prior to the arbitration, without offering anything in return.

In his award, Arbitrator Lundberg found that without an equivalent quid pro quo, the union would have to offer a compelling reason to show that the wage adjustments were necessary.  The arbitrator found the fact that the union had willingly entered into the “leapfrogging” situation just years earlier in exchange for a higher wage rate completely eliminated the existence of a compelling reason.  The County’s position on the issue was awarded.

The County’s Transport and Court Security Deputies, on the other hand, sought what was deemed to be a “market adjustment” by the union.  For years, the bargaining unit aspired to have its bargaining unit members, who specialize in the transport of inmates from the County jail to various locations across the metropolitan area, and courthouse security duties.  The bulk of the hearing was focused on the County’s right to maintain separate rates for its deputies based on its established job evaluation system and whether the Transport/Court Security Deputies were performing the duties of the patrol deputies to which they wished to be compared.

To resolve the dispute, Arbitrator Hoffmeyer first evaluated the historical comparables of the parties, and noted that the comparables offered by the County included the various classifications doing the work closest to that of the Transport/Court Security Deputies.  However, in following the County’s main argument (and something we’ve been stressing in the last two years of interest arbitration reviews), the arbitrator looked at the internal comparisons for the County, and stated the County had the management rights to determine its classification system, structure and process.  The arbitrator recognized the County’s desire for two separate classifications to perform different duties, and found the County had established the appropriate arrangement for its different deputy classifications.  With that, the County’s position was awarded.

In both cases, after the main issues were resolved, the remaining issues were resolved in line with the pattern established by the County with nine of its eleven bargaining units (for the most part).  The parties are basically in the same situation as the nine other units that settled without arbitration, but are now playing catch-up after working for over a year without a current collective bargaining agreement.

The stakes for interest arbitration are often higher than any grievance one could ever face.  An unfavorable interest arbitration award can put an employer behind for years, not only with its budget, but with other units who get envious of awards provided to bargaining units who take a chance at getting more during interest arbitration.  It is important to have a good case strategy when headed into arbitration with your bargaining unit, and a good strategy starts with a good representative.  If you or your organization need assistance in your approach to your next interest arbitration, contact the Wiley Law Office, for interest arbitration representation experience that works.