ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Rick Kriseman plans to oppose efforts of a group of city workers who want to join the Florida Public Service Union.
About 30 employees classified as professional are recruiting their colleagues to back a move to unionize so they have a voice in annual pay and benefits negotiations. The city classifies about 340 workers as professionals including planners, some parks and recreation staff, engineers, accountants and programmers.
Under Florida law, that group could be represented by the FPSU without a ballot if a majority sign cards saying they want the union to represent them.
But that would require the city to agree to hearings at the Public Employees Relations Commission to classify which employees would be covered, a step that Kriseman is reluctant to take.
“He enjoys having direct relationship with professional staff,” said Ben Kirby, Kriseman’s communications director. “It would remove the flexibility to compensate outstanding professionals — you couldn’t give them merit increases.”
Without city cooperation, the group still could force an election if at least 30 percent of the employees sign a union support card. The city would be required to recognize the union if a simple majority back unionizing.
“The No. 1 thing people have been saying is everybody from ditch diggers to sanitation workers or secretaries, every other employer has the opportunity to sit down with the city and discus what will be happening in their lives,” said Rick Smith, FPSU chief of staff. “Professionals don’t, and they feel they have a lot to offer to the city and they just want the opportunity to do that.”
City professionals, who are not paid overtime, went five years without a pay raise as the city struggled through the recession until receiving a 2 percent pay hike last October in former Mayor Bill Foster’s final budget,. During that time, they saw other city workers represented by FPSU receive pay bumps.
That has led to discrepancies in pay between lower-level workers and professionals, said Dana Bowser, a city chemist who analyzes samples of sludge, drinking water, industrial waste and water from groundwater wells to check for high levels of metals.
“The union people continued to get raises while we did not because they were under a contract,” she said. “They were making more money than us who have been here longer and hold higher positions.”
Kriseman, a Democrat, received donations from unions during his successful election campaign, including the Florida Education Association and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
He has proposed a 2 percent pay raise for city workers for 2015. FPSU leaders are pushing for the city to introduce a $15 minimum wage for its workers.
Paul Zimmerman, an industrial pre-treatment coordinator who has worked for the city for 26 years, said the group’s wish to join the union is not just about pay, but also to have a voice at the table when pensions, vacation policy and health insurance issues are discussed.
“We’re in this unique position in that we’re not quite management, but by the same token everyone we work with is represented,” he said. “We don’t have a voice.”