City of Lawrence sanitation workers file petition to unionize; election forthcoming

photo by: Nick Krug

City of Lawrence solid waste division workers empty containers into the back of a trash truck in this file photo from December 2009.

Story updated at 4:17 p.m. Thursday:

Citing concerns about pay and working conditions, City of Lawrence sanitation workers have taken a step toward unionization, and other employee groups may follow.

Teamsters Local 696 recently filed a petition with the City of Lawrence on behalf of the sanitation workers, whose duties include handling trash, recycling and yard waste collection, asking that the city conduct a union election. Matt Hall, secretary-treasurer and business agent for the Teamsters, told the Journal-World that more than 90% of the 70 sanitation workers supported the petition. Hall said the sanitation workers have multiple concerns, including pay and working conditions, such as work rules about routes, safety and equipment.

“Workers want more of a voice at the table,” Hall said. “They want to be able to have their concerns heard and addressed in a positive way.”

Hall said the city certified the petition this week, and the next step is for the Lawrence City Commission to set a date for the election. According to the city’s resolution governing unions, the employee organization must present a petition to the city clerk that is signed by at least 30% of the full-time employees in the group in order for an election to take place. The commission will then create a resolution setting the days and times for the election, which must be convenient for the employees.

The city clerk is responsible for certifying the petition and conducting the election, according to the resolution. According to information from City Clerk Sherri Riedemann, the petition was certified as sufficient on Tuesday.

Jody Norcross, a 28-year sanitation operator with the city, said in a Teamsters news release that workers were seeking to unionize to improve pay and working conditions and to provide a better life for workers and their families.

“For too long, we have been working under ever-changing rules — told one thing and then forced to do something else,” Norcross said in the release. “As Teamsters, we can win the pay we were promised but never received. We have been working very hard to get to this point — now all of us need to continue to stand together so we can win the respect we deserve.”

Currently, there are two city employee groups that have unionized, the police and fire and medical personnel. City management staff has said over the years that pay for nonunion employees in the city’s primary pay plan has not kept up with the market and lags behind that of unionized employees. The city’s working budget for 2021 includes a general wage adjustment of 0.5% for all employees and about $828,000 in market adjustments for city employees in the primary pay plan, but does not fully fund the recommended pay increases for those employees from the city’s Human Resources Department. The working budget fully funds existing pay schedules for the police and fire and medical unions.

The sanitation workers are not the only employee group interested in unionization. Hall said workers from other city employee groups have also expressed interest in unionizing under the Teamsters, but he could not say at this point which groups. He said that information would become public should petitions be filed.

The petition from the sanitation workers comes after the Teamsters initiated changes to the city’s resolution governing employee unions and the unionization process. The resolution also sets rules for the contract negotiation process and prohibits bargaining groups of city employees from striking. The commission voted last week to approve the resolution changes, which include increasing the number of potential bargaining groups and changes to the voting process for unionization.

Previously, the resolution divided city employees into four groups that could potentially unionize. In addition to police and fire and medical workers, the other two employee groups that the resolution allowed to unionize were “clerical, technical and administrative support personnel” and “service, maintenance and skilled labor.” Hall previously said those divisions were problematic for organization purposes because employees who don’t interact and who have different jobs, working conditions and needs are lumped together.

Following the resolution changes, there are now six potential employee groups that can unionize. Those include police officers and detectives; firefighters, fire engineers and fire lieutenants; administrative support and recreation; solid waste; streets, storm water, traffic, water field, wastewater field and plant operations; and central maintenance, GIS, engineering, technician, building maintenance and park field staff.

The changes amended the voting threshold to unionize from 50% of all employees in a group to 50% of votes cast, as long as more than half of the bargaining group votes. Hall previously said the former framework counted those who don’t vote as “no” votes and created a high threshold for unionization.

The first resolution governing interactions between the city and employee groups was approved in 1983, and it has now been revised four times, according to Human Resources Director Lori Carnahan. Carnahan said she was not aware of any attempts to unionize or requests for elections within the past 20 years.


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