As Mayor Ralph Becker and the City Council dined quietly on the third floor Tuesday night, more than 100 Salt Lake City workers wearing goatees and bright green union T-shirts surrounded the front door of City Hall.
Moments later, the stern-faced crowd crammed the council chamber in a show of force to protest Becker's proposed shift away from annual merit-pay raises.
It wasn't exactly the Madison, Wis., uprising, but uncomfortable nonetheless for the drama-averse administration.
"We appreciate the 3 or 4 percent [employee raise offered for the upcoming budget year], but we do not want to get rid of merits," said Stuart Lawrence, president of the city's 1,100-member American Federation State County Municipal Employees union (AFSCME). "If they get rid of that, an employee can stay at the same pay for like 30 or 40 years."
Lawrence argues Becker's pay plan promotes favoritism and will drive "good people" out of their government jobs.
The problem erupted May 3 after the mayor's chief of staff sent an email to city employees outlining the collective bargaining changes. The two sides remain at a formal "impasse" but may break it Wednesday to resume negotiations.
The mayor's proposal which applies to the police and fire unions, along with AFSCME calls for shelving "merits," "steps," and "COLAs" (cost of living allowances) in favor of annual increases to be determined depending on revenues each budget year.
An internal Mayor's Office email calls the change "more equitable, competitive, flexible, realistic and consistent." That language was suggested, according to the email strand, to "avoid further inflaming the union[s]."
"Unions will argue bad faith since this information is so definitive," writes Cindy Gust-Jenson, council executive director, in an email. She suggested reworking the language to make the compensation changes more palatable. "Since things are sensitive with the unions, consider adding a few more qualifications."
David Everitt, Becker's chief of staff, says the overhaul makes the system more "market based" and boosts union negotiating power. He says the city would like to pay its employees "above market rate" and that scrapping set percentages outlined under worker contracts provides that flexibility.
But AFSCME Executive Director Patty Rich says they won't sign off on such squishy policy. "Until we're sure, we don't want to give up merits," she said. "We're not advocating pay for performance at all. How do we judge when we don't have performance evaluations?"
Ilias Politis, a city police dispatcher and member of the union negotiating team, said the group was assured last year merits would not be eliminated. "You can imagine our surprise when we learned via email that this was not going to be the case." The shift, he told Becker and the council, will result in inequities and "even lower morale."
The city boasts it bucked municipal trends by avoiding layoffs this year and by offering an average raise of 3 to 4 percent. That was done, in part, to offset rising health care premiums. It follows a 1.5 percent pay cut two years ago and no increase last year.
Yet all are not satisfied. "I'm a new guy," said Larry, a city electrician who declined to give his last name out concerns over job security. "I'm going to be stuck in a low raise that I really didn't agree to when I came here. I don't want to lose money."
Addressing the workers, Becker said his budget offers a generous compensation package, especially compared to most Utah cities that offered marginal increases or none at all. He acknowledged that announcing the change from the dais rather than at the negotiating table was a "different protocol."
"We apologize for that," he said.
Glendale-area Councilman Van Turner, who said he recognized many of the workers Tuesday, said the mayor's proposal represents "absolutely" a fundamental change. Does he endorse it? "I can't say we're negotiating."
Councilman J.T. Martin tried to encourage the blue-collar guests he called the city's "lifeblood." "I've hated this impasse because I feel like were family and families have fights," Martin said. "Without you folks, it doesn't work."