Taking Care of Business (chapter 25)

For an introduction to the novel Taking Care of Business, links to all chapters posted so far, and a list of characters who have appeared so far, go here, to the Taking Care of Business resources page. To see every part of Taking Care of Business posted so far in one place, go here.)

Chapter 25

Two days later Gilliam and Decker returned to the same hotel, where they again met with Francisco Estevez, the head of the city’s law department, and John Warren, a lawyer the city hired to lead its negotiating team. Warren had been negotiating labor contracts for the city, its school district, and its public transportation agency for more than twenty years.

“So, where were we?” Warren asked when the two labor representatives had poured themselves coffee and taken their seats.

“You were about to make us an offer that’s not an insult to my members,” Gilliam said defiantly.

“Fred,” Estevez started to say, but Gilliam cut him off.

“Don’t ‘Fred’ me, Cisco. Don’t sit there in your $700 suit and plead poverty. We know the city has money, and we want some of it.”

“You’re right, Mr. Gilliam,” Warren interjected. “The city does have money, and we’re prepared to give you a good deal of it. We’re offering all city workers raises of two percent a year for three years. That comes out to about $140 million in new money. So yes, we have money, and we’re offering it to you now. We’re not asking for any holiday give-backs or any new cost-sharing on benefits, even though cities across the country are asking for and getting both. We will ask for some work-rule changes, but nothing you’ll find terribly burdensome, I assure you. But understand this: I just put $140 million on the table, just like I did the other day, and if you get up and walk out again, the mayor will hold a press conference within an hour to announce to the entire city, including your members, that you walked away from $140 million without so much as even talking about it.”

Decker saw that Gilliam was about to speak and decided to interrupt.

“It’s a basis for further discussion, John.”

Gilliam stopped.

“Good,” Warren replied. “So let’s talk.”

And they did, but it did not go well. The city’s negotiator insisted that the mayor had put every available dollar on the table and that there was no more money; Gilliam insisted that past negotiations were proof that there was always more money, no matter how vigorously and vociferously the city argued to the contrary.

They went back and forth in this manner during four negotiating sessions over a period of ten days. John Warren did all of the talking for the city; Estevez was there to ensure that there was another body in the room and because he was formally a city employee. Fred Gilliam did almost all of the talking for the blue-collar workers. Decker’s primary role was to calm Gilliam when he lost his temper – which was often. Privately, Warren told Estevez that Decker was clearly out of his element, quite possibly even stupid – “a typical Widener law grad,” Warren joked, referring to a local law school well known for taking earnest, hard-working, ambitious, but mediocre people, putting them through years of unchallenging night school classes, and turning them into earnest, hard-working, ambitious, but mediocre lawyers. When Estevez suggested that this would undoubtedly work to the city’s advantage, Warren, experienced and ever-cautious, warned that it might not: Decker was so inexperienced in such negotiations and so utterly without the capacity to render reasoned judgments that he might be incapable of providing the rational, dispassionate counsel needed to offset Gilliam’s volatility. The key to a successful labor negotiation, Warren explained to Estevez – who was himself participating, albeit silently so far, in his first labor talks – was having at least one person on each side of the table who could recognize that his side had gotten everything there was to be gotten from the other side and that the time had come to settle. The other side in these negotiations, Warren feared, may not have that one person, which could mean endless negotiations with little hope of reaching agreement.

The sixth negotiating session demonstrated that the two sides remained far, far apart.

“Two percent a year for three years is a good offer, Fred,” Warren said. “We all know the city’s in a financial bind, so it’s somewhat of a miracle that we’re offering any raises at all. After all, you yourself were so certain that we’d offer you nothing that you put out a press release criticizing us for not offering you anything even though we did.”

Gilliam did not like being reminded of this blunder. Warren did not wish to dwell on it, but he had decided to mention it once a week as a counter-balance to the many times Gilliam rejected an offer and claimed it was “bad faith” – to remind Gilliam that when it came to bad faith, Gilliam was without peer.

“I don’t understand why you’re constantly seeking credit for putting money on the table,” Gilliam replied. “That’s what you’re supposed to do in contract negotiations.”

“And you’re not supposed to walk out when we do,” Warren said archly.

“John, you know the history of these negotiations,” Gilliam replied. “The city always ends up giving us more than its original offer. So why don’t you just cut to the chase and get to that part now and we can both go and tell our people that we’ve worked this thing out.”

“History is just that: history,” Warren said. “That was then and this is now, so let’s stay in the present. Two percent a year for three years. No give-backs. No additional cost-sharing on health care. And we won’t even ask you to give back that idiotic holiday.”

“How dare you!” Gilliam bellowed, slamming his palm violently on the table. “How dare you! One of my men gave his life in service to this city! How dare you begrudge us our negotiated right to remember him properly with a special day to pay our respects.” Decker, sitting alongside Gilliam, was both frightened and confused: frightened by the ferocity of Gilliam’s outburst and confused because he had no idea what his client was talking about.

Gilliam and Warren were sparring over Amos Wells Day, a paid holiday for the city’s blue-collar workers. In the mid-1960s, Wells, a city water department worker attempting to close an open fire hydrant that was blasting water into the street on a hot summer day, slipped on a wet pavement directly into the stream of water and was propelled by the sheer force of the jet of water into the middle of a busy intersection, where he was struck and killed by an ice cream truck. The city had given its employees a day off work to attend the funeral, and then, during labor negotiations a year later, a mayor facing a difficult primary election made it a permanent paid holiday for city workers when he realized that doing so would not cost the city any money but would help him reach a new contract agreement before that election, thereby helping him win the votes of satisfied city workers. That mayor won renomination by just a handful of votes and city workers had now enjoyed this paid holiday for more than forty years.

“First of all, I said we weren’t asking for it back, and second of all, I think it’s hardly begrudging your members to suggest that Amos Wells should not be mentioned in the same breath as Martin Luther King, George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln,” Warren said.

“It’s disrespectful even to mention it,” Gilliam replied. “Amos Wells gave his life for this city and deserves a day in his memory.”

“And what about all the police officers and firefighters who did the same?” interjected Estevez. The others looked at him, astonished that the heretofore silent city official had spoken.

“What about them?” Gilliam asked.

“Why a day off for a water department worker and not the dozens of cops and firemen who’ve died in the line of duty?”

Gilliam scoffed; Warren was not pleased with the possibility that Estevez might be giving Gilliam a new idea.

“If I was running their unions, you’d be damn sure we’d have paid days off for all of them – every single one. I can’t help it if the men they elect to run their unions were born with empty sacks.”

“Well, we’re not talking about that, Fred,” Warren said, “and we’re not asking you to give back Amos Wells Day. What we are asking you to do is to be serious about our offer: two percent a year for three years.”

“And I’m telling you that if that’s where you’re starting, it means there’s more you’re holding back and that all I have to do to get it is to wait you out.”

“There’s no more,” Warren replied. “You’ve seen the budget and you’ve seen the revenue projections. There’s no more.”

“There’s always more. Tell me: do you like the smell of trash piling up on neighborhood streets, John?”

“What?”

“Our contract expires June 30, and by the fourth of July, uncollected trash is going to be sitting on curbs for four days. Add a little heat and a little humidity and you’ve got bugs, you’ve got rats, and you’ve got stench. And if it rains, god help us all.”

“It’s April and you’re threatening a strike in July – now? Talk about bad faith.”

“Let’s not pretend it’s not a possibility, John, because we all know it is. And this time around, we’ve got a lot going for us that I think will put the public in our corner.”

“Surely you jest.”

“Do I look like I’m jesting?”

“You think the taxpayers are going to support giving you and your members more of their tax dollars?”

“Yeah, I do.”

“Would you care to tell me why?”

Gilliam smiled for a moment and decided that the time had come to unveil the negotiating strategy that he was certain would pay huge dividends for his members this year.

“Here’s why: the people love us.”

“They love you?” Warren asked, fighting hard to refrain from laughing.

“Yes, they love us. We all know the most publicly visible of my people are streets department workers, right?”

“I’m with you so far.”

“The trash is being collected. Street repairs are now being made almost as soon as a problem arises. And to top it off, the last time it snowed, we clearly every single city street – every last one of them.”

“So?”

“So we’re heroes. Read the newspaper. Watch the TV news. Or just ask your neighbors. People are happy with us, and we believe that when we take our case to the people, they’re going to be in our corner.”

Warren nodded.

“I see,” he said. “And you think one good winter is going to make up for years of the public hating you – a hatred, by the way, that we’ve never taken advantage of during past contract talks.”

“Oh, you’ve taken advantage of it. You don’t come right out and do it overtly, but you always count on the public backing your hard-line negotiating positions because you know they don’t like us. But now they do, and we’re going to take advantage of it.”

“How?”

“We’re going to take our case right to the people.”

Decker turned to look at Gilliam; he was hearing this for the first time.

“We’re going to tell them that we’re getting the job done like never before, that they’ve told us that they’re happy with our work, and that we hope they’ll contact the mayor and their council members and tell them to be fair to us.”

“And the past twenty or thirty years of failing to meet that kind of high performance level?”

“You see, that’s where you guys have really helped us. You gave us Shaniqua Watson, bless her heart – a gift from heaven above. We’re going to tell the public that our men and women have always been ready, willing, and able and that our past failures were the result of poor leadership and incompetent management, and Shaniqua Watson is proof. You finally put a good manager in charge and now look at how good our work is. So our argument is going to be that the problem has always been you, not us, and that the last few months are proof of that. People should support us because we’re willing to do the city’s dirty work, their dirty work, and we’ve proven that when we’re given the right tools and the right leadership, we can do a great job.”

“Really?” Decker asked, excited about his client’s speech.

Gilliam glared at him; Decker looked down.

“You have a very high opinion of people’s capacity to forgive and forget,” Warren said after a moment’s pause.

“The public has the attention span of a gnat,” Gilliam replied, smiling.

“Well, Fred, that may be true, but what happens when we tell the public that you turned down $140 million in pay raises? Do you think they’re going to be on your side then?”

“I think they will,” Gilliam said, suddenly sounding not quite as convinced by his own argument.

“And what about when we tell them that the only way to pay you more than the additional $140 million we already offered is to raise their taxes? Do you think the public will be in your corner then, when you’re asking them to reach into their own pockets?”

Gilliam did not respond.

“We’re trying to be fair with you, Fred,” Warren continued. “Two percent a year over three years is fair. We think the public would absolutely support no raises in the first year, and we think they would support more cost-sharing on your health benefits, probably even a lot more cost-sharing, since most people’s employers started requiring them to do that a long time ago. We also think they would turn out in huge numbers for a parade celebrating a give-back of Amos Wells Day. But we’re not asking for any of those things. The mayor has run a huge international corporation and he’s never asked his employees to give anything back, and his marching orders to us are to treat you with the same respect. But if you think the public is going to support raises for you even if it means higher taxes for them, I suggest that you hire a pollster and ask them yourself because I think you’ve got another thing coming.”

The talks went on like this for the rest of the session, and a few others as well, until Gilliam concluded that he had reached a stalemate and needed help. For that help, he would turn where the unions always turned, and where the public never suspected they turned.

(more next Sunday)

 

 

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