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Water distribution workers expected to get union recognition

A pipe that has water
Luis Tosta
After disappointing meetings with the city, water distributions workers are seeking unionization with LiUNA 955.

The Columbia City Council is expected to vote to voluntarily recognize water distribution workers as new members of LiUNA 955 — a union representing around 250 city workers — at Monday’s meeting.

This summer, 22 out of 27 of the city’s water distribution workers voted to leave the Columbia Water & Light Department and join LiUNA, according to a city staff report.

The Columbia Water and Light Department is not a union and does not have the power to collectively bargain for the workers, who are treated as other non-union city employees in terms of pay and other benefits.

City officials met with the water distribution workers in the summer to discuss pay and other needs.

“We were given about 45 minutes, and everything we proposed they shot down,” said Cody Allen, who was selected by his peers to represent them at the meeting. “They urged us into an agreement which got everyone motivated (to join a union) because they weren’t taking us seriously.”

Allen said the contingent was concerned that wage compression, a policy where experienced employees are paid the same as new hires, was not rectified in the talks. Specifically, workers were concerned that newly hired commercial drivers license operators would make the same as more experienced ones, he said.

The council subsequently asked city staff to report on ways to address wage compression by January.

The council voted in June to provide all non-union city workers, including the water distribution workers, a 4% pay increase.

Deputy City Manager Mike Griggs, who negotiates on behalf of the city on union matters, said the city also provided additional pay raises to specific individuals whose salary was below the market for their job.

After the disappointing meetings with the city, Allen said the water distribution workers sought unionization with LiUNA.

In the months since the union authorization cards were submitted, LiUNA and the city have gone back and forth over whether the water distribution workers could have their pay and benefits for this year negotiated by LiUNA.

LiUNA representative Andrew Hutchinson said in a news release, “City management, rather than continuing negotiations with Local 955, decided that they would simply implement their own economic package and ignore the ongoing negotiations with Local 955 members.”

Rafael Gely, a professor of law at MU who specializes in labor issues, spoke on when city officials would be required to negotiate with LiUNA about the water distribution workers.

“Collective bargaining is usually part of the budgeting process. If that process is already passed, then there’s nothing one can do about that,” Gely said.

Gely noted that the city may be subject to negotiating with the union on non-budget issues such as setting up grievance policies. However, he added that Missouri “doesn’t have a lot of well-developed collective bargaining laws. There’re some statutes, but it’s certainly not as well developed as it is on the federal level and other states.”

Other agenda items

A report from the Planning and Zoning Commission on short-term rental regulations is on the agenda. For the better part of three years, the commission has been discussing how to regulate residents who offer their homes for rent using services like Airbnb and Vrbo. More information on the plan can be found in prior Missourian reporting.

Mayor Barbara Buffaloe said she thinks regulating short-term rentals is important.

“If I have someone coming in for a MU football game, I want to make sure that the place doesn’t have mold, carbon monoxide, any of those basic things would fall under short term rental regulations,” she said.

One of the key points in the ordinance is requiring people who rent for more than 30 days a year to get a conditional use permit, which would include inspection standards for the property.

The council will vote on whether to appropriate approximately $2.2 million for the purchase of 36,200 roll carts. Residents are receiving pamphlets to select their roll cart size this month as the service is set to start in March 2024.

The Columbia Missourian is a community news organization managed by professional editors and staffed by Missouri School of Journalism students who do the reporting, design, copy editing, information graphics, photography and multimedia.
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