Oregon union abandons entire bargaining unit

After weeks of bitter infighting, a union representing more than 500 Portland-area ambulance workers has "disclaimed" the bargaining unit, leaving the employees of American Medical Response without a contract or union representation.

The turn of events sets the stage for continued unrest that could affect ambulance service across four counties: Multnomah and Clackamas in Oregon, and Clark and Cowlitz in Washington. Through contracts with the counties, American Medical Response is the exclusive provider of ambulance services.

In June, the paramedics and emergency medical technicians threatened to call a strike to secure higher wages and better health care coverage. The strike threat appeared to fade on Aug. 10, when the union, the National Emergency Medical Services Association, announced a tentative agreement and union officials predicted members would approve it. Instead, terms of the agreement provoked outrage among ambulance workers.

Union members said they wanted raises to bring their compensation in line with American Medical Response employees in other West Coast cities.

Annual pay for emergency medical technicians ranges from about $24,800 to $28,500 in Portland, compared with $29,500 to $53,300 in Seattle and $40,600 to $54,300 in Sacramento, according to Portland-area ambulance workers. Paramedics earn more, ranging from about $37,000 to $51,000, but also make considerably less than peers in other West Coast cities, they say.

Some workers complained that the tentative agreement didn't come close to making up the difference. And, they said, it saddled them with an increasing share of health care premiums.

"Everybody was very disgusted with the insurance segment," said Jeff Birrer, a paramedic. Birrer said many of his fellow employees wanted the union, known as NEMSA, to push the strike threat harder during negotiations.

"One of the big issues was, NEMSA didn't want to give a strike notice," Birrer said. "The fact that the national union wouldn't throw down a strike notice took away one of our biggest tools."

Union President Torren Colcord dismissed the complaints. "The expectations of these workers are unrealistic," he said in a written statement. Colcord said the tentative agreement would give most employees a 26 percent wage increase over three years, including annual raises, increases in wage steps and a signing bonus.

NEMSA representative Jeff Misner said members of the bargaining unit expected to get a 180 percent pay increase, and perks such as big-screen plasma televisions at their stations and paid bereavement leave for the death of a pet.

"There was no way this organization could justify a strike and put the safety of these communities in peril for the things these people were demanding to strike over," Misner said.

The Portland-area ambulance workers have been represented by the union for less than two years. Dissatisfied with a contract negotiated by the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757, a majority of members voted to leave that union in March 2006. The bargaining unit previously was represented by two other unions.

As resentments built over the latest agreement, members began organizing a petition to reject representation by NEMSA, a Modesto, Calif.-based union claiming about 6,000 members across the nation.

A vote count on the tentative agreement was set for later this week, but the national union pulled out rather than see its work rejected. On Monday afternoon, the union faxed to federal labor regulators a notice of its intent to abandon the Portland and Vancouver bargaining unit, confirmed James Kobe, acting regional director with the National Labor Relations Board in Seattle. He said the board has not yet verified and acted on the disclaimer.

Kobe said unions do not frequently disclaim bargaining units, but it happens.

Birrer, the paramedic, said fellow workers are seeking another union to represent them. On an Internet bulletin board, workers have mentioned a Teamsters local as one possibility.

Dr. Gary Oxman, Multnomah County health officer, said the situation isn't likely to disrupt ambulance service, but some questions remain unanswered.

"We're not really sure, in the absence of a union, what potential there is for a work stoppage," he said. "We've been digging all day to figure out what's going on."

American Medical Response expressed confidence in maintaining service.

"I'm sure that we will proceed to bargain in good faith with whoever is representing our employees," said Lucy Drum, a company spokeswoman.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

could your story be any more biased? These "brave" EMS workers were openly soliciting the teamsters and hours from filing signatures to the NLRB to stop the vote on the second tentative agreement.

If you are cheating on your wife, is it really a surprise when she finds out and leaves you first?

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