6/4/08

AFSCME sets anti-privatization trap

Accuses Pawtucket of bad-faith bargaining

A four-year labor agreement that gave Pawtucket (RI) employees modest financial gains in return for major concessions on health benefits should have been ratified in its entirety, a union official representing the workers said yesterday. Instead, the City Council ratified only part of the agreement, in effect accepting the concessions while denying the unionized workers several of the gains they had won at the bargaining table, Joseph R. Peckham, deputy director of Council 94 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, testified. That amounted to bargaining in bad faith, Peckham said.

“Speaking on behalf of the union, we were furious the city had backed out of an agreement that we had spent almost a year negotiating,” Peckham said.

Peckham, whose union, AFSCME Council 94, includes Local 1012, made the statements at a hearing before the state Labor Relations Board.

The board, meeting in Cranston, is considering whether to find Pawtucket guilty of unfair labor practices for implementing just part of the agreement negotiated with Local 1012 last year.

No decision was made on the matter yesterday, and a preliminary determination isn’t expected until late summer or early fall, according to Robyn H. Golden, the board administrator.

But the outcome of the hearing wasn’t as important as the residue of bitterness it revealed.

That bitterness could get in the way as city officials seek to overcome the current financial crisis by extracting concessions from city employees.

To balance the 2009 budget without a big tax increase, the city administration is seeking 60 layoffs, a two-year wage freeze, a 20-percent employee health-plan contribution and 12 unpaid furlough days per worker from Local 1012 members, according to Augie Venice, Local 1012 president.

The 300-member union has said it might be willing to consider making some concessions, but only if the council ratifies the full, four-year labor agreement.

So far, the council has refused.

“They asked me. I said no,” John J. Barry III, chairman of the City Council Finance Committee, said, acknowledging he was approached by representatives of Mayor James E. Doyle’s administration.

The council didn’t approve the agreement with Local 1012 members, Barry said, because it felt “there were things in there that weren’t fair to the taxpayers,” among them, a one-percent increase in longevity payments for long-term employees.

According to Peckham, the one-percent increase was in return for contract language requiring all Local 1012 members to contribute a portion of their health-care premiums, and increasing the size of the contribution.

Under the old contract, fewer than half of the union members eligible for health insurance — 102 city employees — were paying part of the premiums, making employee health insurance increasingly expensive for taxpayers as medical costs rose.

The concession on health benefits came in the first year of the agreement, which, to comply with state law, was drafted as two contracts: the first, a one-year pact retroactive to July 1, 2006; the second, a three-year pact that was to have run from July 1, 2007 through June 30, 2010.

The gain in longevity payments was to have taken effect during the three-year pact, so when the council ratified the one-year contract and rejected the three-year contact, it in effect accepted some of the concessions Local 1012 made at the bargaining table, while withholding several of the gains..

Peckham didn’t deny that the city’s chief negotiator, Robert P. Brooks, warned during negotiations that several council members had a problem with longevity.

“I had remarked on more than one occasion that there was a possibility that the City Council would not approve the contract because of the provision regarding longevity,” Brooks said during the hearing.

Peckham admitted that he and the union were concerned about getting caught in the crossfire between the council and Mayor Doyle’s administration.

But he said that, in 30 years of negotiating contracts in Pawtucket, collective-bargaining agreements had always been hammered out in talks between representatives of the mayor and union members.

Peckham said he had never seen a council member at the bargaining table. “They don’t participate in negotiations,” he said. Although required by the City Charter, council approval of a collective bargaining agreement is just a “ministerial function,” he said.

(projo.com)

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