A 400-level class in contract negotiations

Labor Relations Report

In 1997, the city and Summit Local 55 were two full years into contract negotiations. At that time, I was invited into the room and told to be
quiet. My role was to observe the other side of the table by watching closely, listening intently and taking copious notes.

That turned out to be the most valuable experience of my life. On our side of the table, we were led by our State Delegate, Freddy Mondi, who could be charming and fearful at the same time. Across the table sat Regan Burkholder, who could match Freddy with cunning ruthlessness but didn’t leave the same warm fuzzy feelings after he was through with you. Watching the two of them go toe-to-toe was more exciting than Ali vs. Frazier.

Back then, the city was represented by Frederick Danser III of the Apruzzese McDermott law firm. Rick displayed all the appeal of your favorite uncle. He was somebody who you just felt comfortable talking to, even though he was a management attorney. On our side, we had D.B. Ross of Lindabury, McCormick & Estabrook. D.B. was a good friend and the kind of attorney who laughed off Freddy and me arriving at his house at 11 p.m., using the take-down lights to illuminate his deck, just to ask if he’d received a message to return our urgent phone call. His wife, Mary, usually prepared a basket of healthy snacks for us to share at the negotiations table. I cherish those days!

After all the meetings — usually opened with D.B. and Rick discussing golf, kids, weather and other innocuous topics at $275 per hour — we finally declared an impasse and filed for arbitration. PERC assigned Joel Weisblatt, the current chair of the NJ Public Employment Relations Commission. That is the day my negotiating lessons began.

Joel spent most of the day going from our conference room to their conference room with ideas that brought us closer to an agreement with each trip. This was mediation at its finest. I was amazed at all the scenarios that followed “what if…,” “perhaps…” and “maybe…” It was a 400-level class in contract negotiations. After 26 months of fruitless talking, Joel steered us to an agreement in less than eight hours. We avoided arbitration by settling on a contract that both sides felt could have been better and both sides were comfortable with what we had gained. He was that good.

More than a quarter of a century later, Joel is planning to retire from his position at the commission. He has recommended Mary Beth Hennessy-Shotter to assume the role of commission chair. She will be leaving her position as director of conciliation and arbitration, where she has been responsible for many things, including refilling the special panel of interest arbitrators, which was decimated by the “rocket docket.” As a result of statutory deadlines enacted by former Governor Christie in 2010 that required an interest arbitration award to be issued within 45 days of the case being assigned, most of them quit the panel because it was nearly impossible to properly complete a case in that time, and failure to do so resulted in fines for the arbitrators.

Those deadlines were extended in 2018 to require a 90-day turnaround from assignment to award. Unfortunately, that is still not enough time for an arbitrator to fully examine the issues presented by the parties and offer a solution that represents an award that satisfies the interests of both parties. Most of the IA awards in New Jersey since 2018 have solely focused on salary increases, with a slant toward maintaining a 2 percent soft cap. Some awards have granted one or two other proposals, but most often the arbitrator will cite insufficient evidence presented to award most proposals. To me, that translates to meaning not enough time can be spent evaluating each side and balancing that with the rest of the award before fines begin to accrue.

The arbitrator finds it appropriate to reiterate that the issues set forth and resolved in the award herein are linked and intertwined as part of a package. There may be separate discussion sections in this discussion and analysis however, one cannot lose sight of the package in its entirety. The final result must be reasonable in its totality, not merely on an issue-by-issue basis. The award herein is balanced and reasonable as a total package resolving all the issues in dispute at interest arbitration. –Joel Weisblatt

Interest arbitration is a process used in labor relations to resolve disputes between public employers and unions when they cannot reach an agreement on collective negotiating issues. In the state of New Jersey, interest arbitration has played a crucial role in settling disputes and ensuring a fair and equitable resolution for both parties involved. This quote by Joel Weisblatt from an award he issued in 2008 emphasizes the importance of considering the entire package of issues and seeking a balanced and reasonable resolution in interest arbitration.

Multiple issues are often presented for resolution, such as wages, benefits, working conditions and other terms of employment. These issues are interrelated and interconnected forming a comprehensive package that should be considered as a whole. Since implementation of the rocket docket, arbitrators have been isolating individual issues and evaluating them independently, which has led to an imbalanced outcome. An unbiased evaluation may conclude that the outcomes have been pro-employer.

When interest arbitrators evaluate the issues at hand, they must consider how each element interacts with the others. For example, granting significant wage increases without addressing corresponding adjustments in benefits or working conditions could lead to unintended consequences, such as financial strain on the employer or dissatisfaction among employees. By considering the entire package, arbitrators can identify potential trade-offs and ensure a fair and reasonable resolution that takes into account the overall impact on both parties.

Interest arbitration aims to strike a balance between the interests of the public employer and the union, promoting fairness and maintaining a harmonious labor relationship. Arbitrators are tasked with carefully evaluating the proposals and evidence presented by both parties, taking into account the specific circumstances and economic conditions relevant to the case. Prior to 2010 and even today in states like Ohio and Oregon, arbitrators recognize the importance of assessing the reasonableness of the resolution as a whole, rather than evaluating each issue in isolation. This approach ensures that the outcome is not lopsided, with one party benefiting significantly more than the other. By considering the broader context, arbitrators can develop an award that reflects a fair compromise, taking into account the needs and constraints of both the public employer and the union.

New Jersey has a long history of interest arbitration playing a pivotal role in resolving labor disputes in the public sector. The New Jersey Employer-Employee Relations Act (EERA) sets forth the framework for interest arbitration proceedings, providing guidelines and criteria that arbitrators must consider when making their decisions. Arbitrators are required to evaluate factors such as the financial impact of the award on the employer, the interests and welfare of the public, the overall compensation levels of public employees, the pattern of negotiated agreements in the jurisdiction and other relevant factors. By considering these elements in conjunction with Weisblatt’s emphasis on the package as a whole, today’s arbitrators in New Jersey should strive to reach balanced and reasonable outcomes that serve the public interest.

Joel Weisblatt’s quote from 2008 encapsulates the essence of what interest arbitration in New Jersey used to be and can be again. It reminds us that a comprehensive approach, evaluating the package of issues rather than individual components, is essential in reaching a fair and balanced resolution. By considering the interconnectedness of various bargaining issues and striving for reasonableness in their totality, interest arbitrators in New Jersey play a crucial role in maintaining labor harmony and ensuring fairness between public employers and unions.

I am thankful for the opportunity to have learned this from Mr. Weisblatt. I wish him good health and happiness in retirement. I am extremely confident that Chairperson Hennessy-Shotter will continue his work to restore PERC to its former glory. I would also like to publicly apologize for putting her on the spot with a pointed question at the recent PERC conference about removing the rocket docket to allow arbitrators to fully do what the act requires them to do. She was gracious in directing the PBA and fire unions to the NJ Legislature to rescind the portion of the statute that has caused the problem. Cheers to both of these dedicated professional neutrals!