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UNION WORKERS OPT FOR SECURITY OVER WAGES

Last year saw 8,200 General Motors Corp. workers on layoff because of a strike in Michigan; a bitter and unsuccessful union boycott of NBC affiliate WGRZ-TV and an election that gave James P. Hoffa his father's old job at the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

But behind all the headline-grabbing drama, 1998 also saw the expansion of a quiet trend: More and more unions are signing long-term contracts with employers in Western New York, a move that indicates workers are willing to forgo high raises in favor of job security.

"It brings stability to both the employer and the employee," said Luis Madera, manager of the sewing workers union, Western New York UNITE.

The union's 70 workers at Buffalo Batt & Felt Corp. recently approved a five-year agreement, the longest term negotiated by the union at the company. UNITE also signed long-term agreements with Buffalo employers Habasit Globe and M. Wile & Co.

UNITE was just one of several unions that departed from their normal course and adopted longer-term agreements, including broadcast workers at WKBW-TV Channel 7 and Teamsters distribution center workers for Tops Markets.

"I definitely see it (long-term contracts) more than ever before," said Mary Helenbrook, district director of the New York Employment Relations Board.

The trend is especially apparent in manufacturing industries that live in the shadow of downsizing, she added.

"I think the global economy and the fear of companies pulling up stakes makes job security more important," Ms. Helenbrook said.

Labor agreements usually range from two to five years, with three years being typical. At many companies the term of the agreement is set by tradition and accepted as a matter of course, reducing the number of issues negotiators must address.

Not all unions are signing longer agreements, labor attorney William E. Grande said. Indeed, negotiators have adopted one- and two-year agreements recently where the union and company remained at odds on some issues, he said. Members will accept an otherwise unpalatable agreement if its short term means it will be revisited quickly.

But in general, unions opted for more longer-term agreements, despite a booming economy that is inflating corporate profits.

At WKBW, a five-year agreement locked in labor costs, allowing the company to focus on budgeting for an expensive transition to digital broadcasting, said Mike Quinney, chief steward of the broadcast workers union at Channel 7.

"They're going to move into the future with or without you," he said. "It's important to be flexible . . . so they don't leave you behind."

By agreeing to the company's proposal for a long-term contract, the union got a "more than fair" wage package with raises of 3.1 percent per year, plus vision benefits for the first time and protections against technology-related layoffs, Quinney said.

Longer agreements may include "wage reopeners" before their expiration that allow wage rates to be renegotiated, but without the shadow of a strike if the talks go poorly, Grande said.

The disappearance of inflation as a major economic concern may be part of the reason workers are willing to accept agreements that will keep them away from the bargaining table for an extra two years, experts said.

With inflation hovering below 3 percent, wage earners have less fear that their paychecks will erode through sharp declines in purchasing power during a lengthy agreement.

But more important is the threat of corporate downsizing, Helenbrook said. As companies stress they must compete with offshore corporations, their workers seem increasingly willing to sign lengthy pacts containing moderate raises.

The tone was set by the signing of an eight-year agreement by multiple unions at Quebecor in late 1997, Helenbrook said. The guarantee of strike-free operations helped the company win printing contracts from customers fearful that shutdowns would disrupt delivery of promised work on time.

Some unions have traded the enhanced stability of the longer-term contract for wage and benefit provisions that are richer than they otherwise might have been. The pact at Buffalo Batt & Felt includes a 14 percent wage increase over its five-year term and higher company contributions to workers 401(k) retirement plan.

Having invested in new equipment, the company sought to focus on productivity improvements and other business goals.

"We wanted as big a horizon as we could get," said Robert Heilman, general manager of the maker of polyester furniture stuffing.

"We just want to put that (labor issues) aside for a while."

At smaller companies that lack a large human resources office, prolonged negotiations cut into the time of managers and of union workers who serve on the negotiating committee. Thus lengthening the period between negotiations can directly increase productivity.

Workers who sign up for long-term pacts that will keep them away from the negotiating table for years should be rewarded with a similar display of loyalty from their employer, said John Kaczorowski, president of the AFL-CIO Buffalo Council.

"Maintain what you have and create jobs -- downsizing's not the answer," he said.

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