1-man Springdale Township crew aims to keep union bargaining status
By Mary Ann Thomas
Published: Monday, Nov. 5, 2012, 12:31 a.m.
Cleaning catch basins after the remnants of superstorm Sandy last week, Mike Shock of the Springdale Township public works crew put in a typical work day.
But if he is looking for someone to lift up, say, a catch basin grate. He is out of luck unless he calls for help.
He is the sole member of Springdale Township's road crew, which used to include two full-time workers a few years ago, both members of Teamsters Local Union 205.
Now, standing alone with his labor contract set to expire at the end of the year, Shock is a one-man bargaining unit that township commissioners say they will not recognize.
“I would like to have them renew the contract,” said Shock, 40, who has worked for the township for about a decade.
“This is where I grew up, and this is my hometown,” he said.
“Because of case law, we don't have to recognize him as a bargaining unit but that doesn't mean that we're not going to work out a contract,” Commissioners Chairman George Manning said.
In Springdale with its 800 homes in 2.3 square miles and a population of 1,600, “One worker is enough,” Manning said. “It works out very well.”
One-man bargaining units without union representation are a rarity, according to an AFL-CIO official, but pared-down public works are not these days.
“Usually, there's good relationships between municipalities and unions,” said Jack Shea, president of the Allegheny County Labor Council, AFL-CIO.
Whittling down the unionized workforce and then opting not to recognize the one-man bargaining unit is “akin to breaking a union even though it is one person,” Shea said.
“By not recognizing the union, it takes rights away from an individual and it forces the larger question in my opinion: Why do folks need representation?”
Shea said representation is something that a worker doesn't need every day, or perhaps at all. But “it's like automobile insurance. We all pay for it and we hope we never need it. But when you want to use it, you want to have it there.”
Manning sees it differently.
“Sometimes you become held hostage by the bargaining union,” he said.
“That doesn't mean that we will not negotiate a contract, but it does allow us more freedom. We're not held down by that contract at that time.”
Phil Hans, who was one of two laborers for the township for 30 years and now a commissioner, said, “The loss of the union — that's never good. I've been a union man for 30 years.”
But, “it's a new era,” he added.
Financial efficiency is important in running a township these days and “not raising taxes. That's the way it's going now.”
Doing more with less
It's the proverbial where-the-rubber-meets-the-road: In an effort not to raise taxes, a number of municipalities have scaled back their work projects and not replaced some full-time road workers who retire.
In Springdale Township, labor costs have gone down with cutting the road crew in half. However, as with all local governments struggling with their budgets, “the cost of everything is going up,” Manning said.
“We're looking for ways to be more frugal and economical,” he said. “It was not our intent to cut labor. Mike was able to provide services on his own and working with neighboring communities.”
But Shock said as a lone worker, there are limitations to what he can do.
Snow removal, waterline breaks, any kind of sewer-related work and catch basin replacements are not one-man operations, he said.
But municipal workers from neighboring municipalities can help with some jobs, township commissioners said.
In fact, that kind of cooperation and shared services are a key to survival for these small towns.
“There's a lot of talk of shared services and there's a ton of that going on,” said David M. Sanko, executive director of the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors.
“All communities and all governments at all levels are facing the challenge of meeting the demands of the services they provide with the revenue stream they have. No one is interested in raising taxes and residents aren't wanting to pay for them,” he said.
But at some point, Sanko said, “The citizens are going to say, ‘Stop, you can't let bridges close, etc.'”
Sharing the services
For those more extensive, two-man jobs, Shock can get help if he asks, Manning said.
“If Mr. Shock would like help, he has the ability to call Phil Hans where he can come out on a part-time basis,” he said.
But there are some issues there, as Shock filed a citation with a charge of harassment against Hans. Shock claims that his former co-worker has been following him around.
The citation hearing is scheduled for 9 a.m. Nov. 15 in front of District Judge Elissa Lang in Sharpsburg.
Hans said there has been a misunderstanding. “I don't have any bad relations with him. I worked here for 30 years, and I would ride around the town. I do the same as a commissioner now, and I have a right to go out there and watch him work.”
Regardless, commissioners are not looking to hire anyone full time to help Shock and want to work out other labor arrangements.
“Through the years, Mr. Shock has chosen to not use anybody, so we were under the assumption that he didn't need any help,” Manning said.
“Also we are able to partner with neighboring communities,” he said. “Not every community has to buy a back hoe. We need to work together to survive,” he said.
“With our tax base, we can only do so much. Either you raise taxes or downsize,” Manning said.
Mary Ann Thomas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4691 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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