Miami-Dade County

As Miami-Dade County commission prepares for vote, dispute with labor unions gets ugly

 

pmazzei@MiamiHerald.com

Mailed packages arrived by the dozens recently at the offices of Miami-Dade County Commissioners Rebeca Sosa and Sally Heyman, so many that Heyman said she had trouble getting through the door.

Inside were rubber beach sandals, hundreds of them, inscribed with handwritten messages.

They weren’t holiday presents. They were flip-flops for perceived flip-floppers.

“Some say ‘traitor,’ ” Sosa said. “I haven’t had the time to read them all.”

That is how nasty the county’s contract disputes have become with employee unions, with another commission vote coming Thursday.

Frustrated workers have been clamoring to have their pay restored as planned, after agreeing four years ago to sacrifice during the economic downturn.

Sosa, the commission chairwoman, and Heyman were targeted for initially supporting and then voting against labor last month. Eleven bargaining units are at an impasse with Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s administration over an unpopular healthcare contribution the mayor wants to continue.

Heyman said several politicians in the northeast Miami-Dade cities she represents have also received unsigned letters bashing her and encouraging potential challengers to run against her.

But the pressure has done little to dissuade her and Sosa from their votes allowing the extension of the contribution, which requires employees to give up 5 percent of their base pay for group healthcare costs. Sosa voted to end the contribution, but then switched after Gimenez said the decision would create a $56 million hole this year in the county’s $4.4 billion operating budget and lead to more than 100 layoffs.

Heyman voted against ending the entire contribution because she wanted to propose a compromise to shrink the contribution to 3 percent and phase it out.

After failing to resolve the issue last month, commissioners asked the mayor to try to negotiate a deal before bringing the matter back. The contribution was supposed to end Jan. 1, though it continued because a Gimenez veto was upheld.

Gimenez responded last week by offering the unions a 3.5 percent across-the-board pay cut, which would result in an up to 1.5 percent increase in workers’ take-home pay but cut into some employees’ pension benefits.

That was met with little enthusiasm from labor, whose leaders pointed out that the only decision commissioners can make Thursday is on the existing contribution. Gimenez noted in a memo Wednesday that the board could direct the mayor and unions to hammer out a pay cut at the bargaining table.

Yet it may be too late to hope for a negotiated solution, given how much the relationship between the two sides has deteriorated.

“Labor relations are at an all-time low,” said Mark Richard, an attorney for several unions. “There’s just no leadership coming from the mayor’s office to rally the troops.”

In his memo, Gimenez questioned unions’ willingness to negotiate, saying that only the unions representing water and sewer workers and general-government employees formally sat down to talk. Representatives from the other unions were present at one of the meetings.

“We have not received any counter proposals in an effort to resolve this impasse,” Gimenez wrote.

At the water and sewer meeting Wednesday, Gimenez’s staff proposed another alternative: reducing the healthcare contribution for workers making less than $52,000 a year to 1.65 percent, which would restore 3.35 percent of their pay.

Emilio Azoy, the union’s president, said after the meeting that it would be unfair for some workers to have to continue paying even a portion of the contribution when two other unions, representing sanitation and aviation workers, have already had the full 5 percent restored.

“It was unacceptable,” said Azoy, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 121.

No one has admitted to being behind the stunts geared at Heyman and Sosa, though it’s clear at least some unions are responsible. A couple of representatives have said as much in private.

The flip-flop packages to the commissioners came anonymously. Some of them listed, in jest, the commissioners’ own office addresses on the return label, Heyman and Sosa said. Others purported to be sent to Sosa from Heyman, or vice versa.

“I thought it was creative,” Heyman said. “The message was clear, but I didn’t even pay attention to it. You know something? Talk to me. Have a dialogue.”

“Nothing can influence me in a negative way, because there are very good employees in Miami-Dade County,” Sosa said in a separate interview. “I have to make my decisions with my conscience.”

The two commissioners have made up their minds on at least one thing, however: Both plan to donate the inscribed flip-flops to the homeless.

Read more Miami-Dade stories from the Miami Herald

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