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Billings city union workers negotiating higher wages as contract set to expire

Ten days remain: Billings city union workers negotiating higher wages as contract set to expire
Posted at 6:32 PM, Jun 20, 2024

BILLINGS — As the contract between the city of Billings and its largest union nears expiration, negotiations have hit an impasse, with the union demanding a bigger pay raise.

On Monday, the Teamsters Local 190 Union, which represents 365 city workers, voted on what the city said was its "last, best, and final offer." In contract negotiations, this language is commonly used to describe an offer after the two sides have failed to reach an agreement. However, the two sides have agreed to three days more of negotiations.

Jim Soumas, the Teamsters' secretary-treasurer, said that the city conducted a market analysis on workers' pay and found that 28 of the 365 union members were overpaid and that 223 of them were expected to get less than a 5% pay increase in the new contract. Those numbers starkly contrast what Soumas said are big salary hikes for city administrators.

“When I look at the compensation percentages for admin ranging anywhere from 8 to 17% in the last couple of years, but yet they can turn around and tell their employees, 'We're overpaying you.' You know, that really hurts straight to the heart," Soumas said. “Ninety percent of our membership that voted no on the contract and voted yes to authorize a strike.”

For the 2023 fiscal year, City Administrator Chris Kukulski had a base pay of $215,539.95, which included a 3.5 percent increase.

Assistant City Administrator Kevin Iffland received around a 10% salary increase for the 2023 fiscal year, totaling $181,987.89.

The library director, Gavin Woltjer, received around an 8% pay bump, raising his salary to $153,830.71.

In 2024, while the union could not confirm salary, all administrators except for Kukulski were estimated to have received increases between 7 percent and 16 percent. MTN News also requested this salary information from the city but has not received the information.

These increases for administrators, Soumas said, are higher than those proposed in the final offer by the city for union workers. Librarians would have received a 0.19% percent increase. Police support specialists would have gotten a 3.6% increase.

Some maintenance workers would have received a 12% increase in the new contract, bringing their pay to an average of around $66,000 a year.

"Those members stood together with those that were getting zero increase and said, no, we all have to have an increase," Soumas said. “(We're) not asking for them to be rich, but just afford to live.”

The city has declined to comment, citing the ongoing negotiations, which will continue next week. If a deal is not reached by June 30, city workers could strike. Union members could also agree to continue working under their current contract as negotiations continue.

Union members voted Monday to authorize a strike, which is typically among the last steps before a work stoppage.

“It's not that we are, you know, charging and going to run out there and want a strike. It's, we want that leverage to bring the city to what is a fair and reasonable deal,” Soumas said.

City services such as garbage collection, utilities, street maintenance, the library, the parks department, MET Transit and the airport could be affected.

“Nobody wins in a strike, really, at the end of the day, but you still have to stand firm, you know, for what you've got to do,” Soumas said.

The Teamsters Union does have a strike fund set up, and members could start picketing as soon as July 1.