The Poloncarz administration reached an impasse with its blue-collar union last spring. But the union, facing the prospect of no raises for 2016, took the unusual step of appealing directly to the County Legislature for money.
Even more unusual, the Republican majority led by Conservative Joseph Lorigo drafted a proposal giving all full-time members of the blue-collar union a $1,000 one-time payment for 2016. Part-timers would get a prorated amount.
That proposal, which would draw hundreds of thousands of dollars from the county's savings account, received unanimous, bipartisan support from the Legislature this afternoon.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1095 represents roughly 1,500 members.
"It's a one-time payment to cover a one-time expense," said Legislature Majority Leader Lorigo, C-West Seneca. "The union has been completely ignored by the administration. If we can get involved and help, then we should get involved and help."
He said the Legislature resolution should provide incentive for both sides to negotiate a proper settlement.
The county administration, however, questioned the sincerity and motivations of the Republican-supported majority. Peter Anderson, spokesman for Democratic County Executive Mark Poloncarz, labeled the Legislature actions as nothing more than political pandering for union votes and endorsements.
"This is an election year – let's keep this in mind," Anderson said. "Everyone wants to look like a friend of labor."
All 11 legislators are up for re-election this year. Lorigo's resolution was co-sponsored by Chairman John Mills, R-Orchard Park, and Legislator Ted Morton, R-Cheektowaga. But during the Legislature meeting, all legislators present signed on as co-sponsors.
Legislator Barbara Miller-Williams, D-Buffalo, cautioned AFSCME members, a number of whom were present at the meeting, that the $1,000 bonuses would be taxed at a high rate.
Union President Richard Canazzi said the county has had a history of allowing expired contracts to go unresolved for six or seven years, and getting the Legislature to support zero percent raises each year. That was made clear through the county's records, he said.
"We showed there was a pattern," he said.
He also said it was the county that called an impasse in April of last year even though AFSCME representatives wanted to continue negotiating. The blue-collar union represents everyone from parks workers, highway laborers and tradesmen to certified nurses aides. Their members not only work directly for Erie County government, but also for Erie County Medical Center, the library system and Erie Community College.
The one-time payments are expected to cost the county between $400,000 and $500,000, and cost ECMC about $600,000, Canazzi said.
"We're the lowest paid of all the unions in the county," Canazzi said. "I'm just thankful we have a legislative body that has the best interests of the community, not the unions, the community."
Low county wages have hurt the county's recruitment efforts in many areas, he said.
The union's bargaining team had previously recommended a tentative agreement that included raises of 2 percent for each year of a four-year contract, as well as an agreement to move its members to a slightly more costly health insurance plan. The new plan would have increased co-pays for doctors' visits from $10 to $15, and raised the cost of generic prescriptions from $5 to $10.
But that tentative agreement was soundly defeated by union members, said Steven Miller, county commissioner of human resources.
Miller, the county commissioner of human resources, said AFSCME leaders are giving up a good deal for their members by agreeing to a lump-sum payment for 2016 and erasing negotiated agreements already reached between the union the county administration on a multitude of issues. They include more pay for certain work shifts and a new salary scale that would ensure raises for entry-level employees each year instead of the current salary scale that denies workers raises in their first three years of county service.
A third-party fact finder's report endorsed the county's health insurance proposal but recommended that union employees be given bigger raises of 2.5 percent a year for the next three years. The county is prepared to honor those recommendations, which would put AFSCME employees further ahead financially since it affects how much employees receive in overtime, sick time and pension credits, Miller said.
"I truly believe that a four-year deal with the money that we're talking about is a much better deal than the $1,000 lump sum payment," he said.
He added that if the lump sum payments go through for 2016, the county would have to reevaluate what raises would be on the table going forward.
Canazzi said the request to the Legislature for one-time payments simply closes out negotiations for 2016 and gives both sides a fresh start to negotiate contracts for 2017 and future years. He also mentioned recent efforts by the county to get AFSCME to withdraw its request to the Legislature for the $1,000 payments to its members.
"They've already made blanket threats," he said. "It's a mess."
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