Enlightened Unionism – Competitive Model

Commentary, Workplace, Peter Holle

Two years ago at a conference on local government reform, I met Stephan Fantauzzo, a union leader who represents municipal workers in the City of Indianapolis.

Fantauzzo provided a union perspective on the wave of reform now underway in local government. It was a positive story of a union adapting to changing times.

To service a population of 870,000, Indianapolis uses 4,500 employees. This is less than half the number employed by Winnipeg. It is a city where the union and the city work together to ensure cost-efficient services.

Fantauzzo opposes privatization. The current mayor, Steve Goldsmith, ran on that platform during his first election, while the opposition campaigned out of union hall. Goldsmith won.

After a difficult period, both sides looked for common ground. “We didn’t want to lay in for a four-year siege,” Fantauzzo remembers. The compromise lay in the “competitive model,” where services are fully costed, then tendered out in the marketplace. City work units also bid, but the best price wins.

Surprisingly to some, union involvement in that process led to a respectable 80% success rate in keeping the work in-house. Without the union’s involvement, the city and public managers only won 30% of the bids.

Today, privatization is not an issue. The Mayor talks instead about competition. According to Fantauzzo, he wants the union to win because it gives his administration more flexibility. “We can throw a blade onto garbage trucks during snowstorms,” Fantauzzo says. “The private sector doesn’t have the same versatility.”

The union removed narrow job descriptions that raise costs and turned to broader ones. “The union has cross-trained employees to many different tasks,” Fantauzzo explains. “It has meant wages of employees rising to the level paid the highest skill.”

Fantauzzo foregoes the usual posturing that bogs down municipal services. “We’ve gone far in the competitive model: wages are up, and we’ve done well with a gain-sharing bonus system.”

Where are the savings made? From reduced bureaucratic overhead. “We have less management and fewer bosses,” Fantauzzo continues. “We have eliminated front-line managers, foremen, and supervisors. We have more crews working the roads, and fewer paper pushers.”

The bargaining unit is the same, but management has gone down 40%. In terms of real positions, about 400 people are gone.

Union participation in the competitive model meant an end to the adversarial tone. The union now files about 20 grievances a year, down from 300, because it solves issues before they become problems.

Fantauzzo meets monthly with the mayor and weekly with the deputy mayor. Goldsmith gained his trust by laying off dozens of supervisors who were Republican patronage appointments. The union couldn’t compete when saddled with the overhead.

Fantauzzo is viewed as a maverick by fellow unionists, but less so than a few years ago. When they asked him why he works with the mayor, he bluntly answered, “[My mission] is to protect our members, and if I can do that by working with the mayor to develop an employee-friendly system that allows those employees not only to survive, but thrive, I am going to do that.”

Beleaguered municipal taxpayers in Canada can look with some hope to the Indianapolis model and the example set by Fantauzzo: “We win four out of five contracts that the union bids. When we do the work, we do it for 25% less than it was done for in the past because you start asking people to bring their brains to work instead of parking them at the door.”

Stephan Fantauzzo and another colleague will describe how their union took on privatization and won at a Frontier Centre dinner on May 21. If you want to hear the story give the Centre a call at 957-1567.

View Stephan Fantauzzo’s Speech