City Manager Addresses Labor Dispute Issues

Posted at 11:30 PM, Oct 22, 2013
and last updated 2013-10-23 08:39:09-04

LOWELL, Mich.- Labor disputes have had people in Lowell fired up for months.

Monday’s city council meeting was standing room only, filled with cheers, boos and screams over the ongoing labor disputes and unfair work practice allegations.

City employees filed unfair work practice charges and a judge ruled in their favor, adding quite a few words himself about City Manager Mark Howe.

Howe reached out to Fox 17 to tell his side of the story.  He says Judge Doyle O’Conner, who said Howe was trying to punish employees for joining the union, was taking “the opportunity to smack down a small town city manager.”

O’ Conner ruled Howe failed to bargain in good faith, retaliated against city employees for joining a union and violated their first amendment rights.

City mechanic Ralph Brecken says an email sparked the fire reading, “I cannot lawfully grant pay increases nor can this issue be taken to the council for consideration.”

“That’s not what I was saying. I did not say that they could not speak under public comment or approach the council at a public meeting,” Howe said.

But, that’s how Brecken and his fellow city employees took it.  They brought the unfair labor practice charges to the employment relations commission over a $1,000 one-time pay increase that was given to all non-union employees.

Howe says it’s because they were in union contract negotiations.

Employees also say Howe refused to give one employee the $1 an hour pay increase he’s owned as part of a previous contract.

“Our understanding under the law is that if you join a union then any prior contracts that you`ve had are null & void.”

The judge ruled that’s not true and that the employee should get his raise.

When asked about the increase in court, Howe testified the wage increase was not common practice.

“I was wrong, I was wrong about that.  But I did not lie, I was just wrong in my testimony,” Howe said.

Now, the city is appealing the judge’s ruling.

So far, these charges have cost the city more than $4,000 in legal fees and Howe says the appeal will cost a few thousand dollars more.

“We think that we`re right on the law and intuitively on the $1,000,” Howe said.

The workers say it’s not about money and never has been.  That’s why they turned down the contract offered to them that included the $1,000 one-time pay increase.

“We felt like it was a carrot dangled in our face,” Brecken said. “Go ahead and accept the money but we have to sign our unfair contract.”

He says it’s about job security and basic rights and policies and procedures.