Collective Bargaining and the Zen of Lawn Maintenance

Mark T. Broth

The information contained in this article is not intended as legal advice and may no longer be accurate due to changes in the law. Consult NHMA's legal services or your municipal attorney.

About 10 years ago, I moved into a brand new subdivision. I am one of the few homeowners who did not install a sod lawn. Instead, I nurtured my lawn, helped it through the ravages of drought, voles, grubs and a failed septic tank. While it may not be environmentally correct to say so, I am proud of my lawn. It’s far from perfect, but it does reflect the time and effort that I have put into it. Its appearance also helps justify to my legislative body (my wife) the expenditure of family funds on seed, fertilizer, tools, etc.

This summer, in the course of assisting towns, cities and school districts with labor negotiations, I have had the opportunity to visit many city and town halls and other public buildings. In some cases, even older buildings are surrounded by carefully tended lawns in park like settings (shout out to the Plaistow Town Hall). In other cases, newer municipal buildings are surrounded by a sea of crabgrass barely covering numerous ant mounds, with a few forlorn shrubs or flowers thrown into the ground as an apparent after thought. A couple of times, I was even tempted to start pulling purple loosestrife off some shrubs until I realized that it was the most attractive element of the landscape. For the public good, I restrained myself.

So what does lawn maintenance have to do with collective bargaining? We all know that negotiations are a difficult process. Employees are confronted with issues that directly impact their work and home lives while public employers are always concerned about whether the voters will agree to fund new costs. Employees properly believe that their efforts should be adequately rewarded. Employers believe that they are careful stewards of the public purse and that their recommendations regarding expenditures should be followed.

But how does the voter measure employee effort and employer stewardship? Is it fair or reasonable to ask the public to simply assume that both employee and employer are making their best effort? Without attending a myriad of public meetings or examining public records, how can a voter determine whether employee and employer should be entrusted with more public dollars?

I respectfully submit that the answer is in the little things. It’s in the well maintained lawns and landscapes around public buildings, which show the pride that employees and their supervisors have in their communities and in the quality of their work. It’s in the courtesy that is extended to those waiting outside the clerk’s office; the professionalism and kindness displayed by police and fire personnel; and the demeanor of elected officials during public meetings. Positive actions, behaviors and attitudes go a long way to instilling public confidence. They also help sell labor contracts. Making the case for more money based on increasing health insurance costs and inflation is rarely compelling and has the smell of the “entitlement mentality” that causes voters to bristle. Making the case based on accomplishments: the commitment of employees, supervisors and elected officials to the community that can be tangibly assessed by the appearance of public facilities; and the way in which employees and officials interact with the public can make it much easier to argue that wage and benefit adjustments are not entitlements, but are well earned.

So, while Dr. Seuss’ Lorax spoke for the trees, this lawyer speaks for the lawns. Treat them the way the public treats their own property. Treat the public the way that you would want to be treated. Recognize that government is a service business and acknowledge that the public will support those who show a passion for what they do. The public boycott of Market Basket has little to do with the internal strife within the Demoulas family and the company’s board of directors and everything to do with the fact that the store employees and managers are demonstrating their passion for their jobs.

This is not to suggest that employees and elected officials do not already have enough to do or that they do not already leave a favorable impression on the public. In that sense, public employees and officials are not unique or special-everyone feels overworked and underappreciated. Regardless, the lawn and the other little things are a way of demonstrating that public employees and officials are supportive of their communities and deserving of voter support and approval of new collective bargaining agreements.

Mark Broth is a member of the DrummondWoodsum’s Labor and Employment Group and his practice focuses on the representation of private and public employers in all aspects of the employer-employee relationship. This is not a legal document nor is it intended to serve as legal advice or a legal opinion. Drummond Woodsum & MacMahon, P.A. makes no representations that this is a complete or final description or procedure that would ensure legal compliance and does not intend that the reader should rely on it as such. “Copyright 2014 Drummond Woodsum. These materials may not be reproduced without prior written permission.”