7/25/08

AFSCME state bigs shot down by rank-and-file

Related story: "The 28 labor-states"

GOP Gov. may have been set-up by union's bad-faith bargaining

Dennis Grilli knew the deal was in trouble 15 minutes after they began counting votes. After another 15 minutes, it was clear that Rhode Island’s largest state employees union had overwhelmingly rejected a contract proposal negotiated by its own leadership that included an estimated $10 million in concessions Governor Carcieri needs to balance the state budget.

Council 94, American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees, which represents roughly one-third of all state employees, voted 2,870 to 196 to reject the deal. The ballots were counted by hand yesterday afternoon in the basement of the union’s North Providence headquarters.

The Carcieri administration had spent months hammering out the details of the four-year contract with a group of key union leaders. Grilli, Council 94’s executive director, was among them.

“We did the best we could,” Grilli said of the union negotiators. “But we are a very Democratic organization. The members are tired of being abused by the governor. They felt this was the last straw.”

The deal gives no cost-of-living increase in the first year (but an 8.5-percent increase over the final three years) and forces higher health-care contributions that wipe out salary increases for some lower-paid employees.

In a statement issued after news of yesterday’s lopsided vote spread across Smith Hill, Carcieri noted that the agreement rejected yesterday had been brokered with labor-union leaders.

“I had hoped that Council 94 members would have chosen to be a part of the solution to the state’s financial difficulties,” Carcieri said. “The state’s economy is showing signs of worsening, adding even greater pressure to the budget, and I have an obligation to take whatever steps necessary to balance the budget.”

The governor would not clarify what steps he might take. He said he would decide on a course of action in the coming days.

Union leaders hope that Carcieri returns to the bargaining table, as was the case with the Almond administration when Council 94 members last rejected a contract in 1996. Grilli said that early next week Council 94 would send a formal letter to the governor requesting negotiations.

But Carcieri doesn’t need to negotiate anything, according to his chief legal counsel, Kernan F. King.

“The state has some options that it can take unilaterally, which would be interesting,” he said yesterday.

King declined to list those options, but noted that Council 94 is now essentially operating without contractual protections. The governor’s office last month issued contract termination letters to all state unions, effective June 30, the last day covered by their previous contracts.

“Basically, you don’t have a contract in effect. What happens then?” King said. “If they don’t ratify, they have unpredictability. It may not operate in their long-term advantage.”

King laughed when asked whether the governor might be willing to improve the deal rejected yesterday: “The governor, I would assume, would say, ‘We’re done with these guys. We’ve had 30 some meetings with these people, we’ve negotiated a deal, the state’s in difficult financial circumstances, the United States economy is in trouble. What do they want?’ ”

Among the highlights of the tentative agreement were: pay raises of zero, 2.5 percent, 3 percent and 3 percent during each of the next four years; a one-day pay reduction in the current year that employees can recoup as a paid leave day; and escalating increases in the percentage of premium the employees will be required to pay for their health insurance.

It was the same deal that went to 13 smaller unions that make up the other two-thirds of the state’s work force. At least six of the independent unions have voted to accept the four-year contract, while three have voted it down. The rest will vote in the coming days.

It was no secret that the tentative agreement faced resistance amongst Council 94’s rank-and-file — the secretaries, security guards, janitors and laborers who are among state government’s lowest-paid state employees.

Grilli said that 70 percent of his members make less than $40,000 each year. Council 94 is an umbrella organization that includes 24 local unions across state government, representing groups such as the security guards at Rhode Island College to food-service workers at the Rhode Island Veterans Home.

Each of the locals had voted separately on the contract in the days before yesterday’s vote tally.

“This was going to kill our membership,” said Cathy Paquette, president of Local 2882, one of Council 94’s locals that represents clerical staff and janitors at the Department of Human Services. “We were going to lose money for four years.”

She said her members understood that they’d be working without a contract if they rejected the deal.

“It’s something that they’re living with each day they go to work. They’re afraid they’re going to lose their job,” Paquette said. But “this [new deal] is not going to prevent more layoffs; that’s what we were told. That’s what you have to look at. He can still go ahead, even if we accept this package, and lay more people off.”

Council 94 president Michael Downey is among those who opposed the deal, largely because it changed employees’ health-care contributions from a percentage of their salary to a percentage of their health-care premium. The shift has a disproportionate effect on Council 94’s lower earners.

“It doesn’t work and it’s not fair,” Downey said. “Percentage of premium is a deal-breaker for me.”

Downey urged the governor not to give up on negotiations.

“We have proposals ready that would save the state money,” he said. When pressed, he said the alternatives may save the state less than the estimated $10 million the rejected contract would have saved.

Grilli warned the governor against unilateral action.

“If he attempts to do anything beyond negotiations, if he tries anything, we certainly will challenge that in court,” he said. “He should have his people sit down with us. We’re not unreasonable people.”

(projo.com)

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