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County plan sets sights on unions

Joel A. Giambra's four-year plan puts Erie County's unions more squarely in his cross hairs than he had predicted.

The county executive's plan -- written largely by the control board's financial consultant -- complains about the generosity of a union worker's paid time off; a medical plan that offers monthly massages and requires no premiums; and 15 annual sick days, of which the average worker took 14.9 in the year that ended in August.

Giambra wants the unions to not only surrender perks but to get more done. One passage suggests using satellite technology to gauge the productivity of workers on the road.

Unions represent nine of every 10 county workers, and Giambra wants them to bend under the threat of a wage freeze imposed by the control board, should its seven state appointees become a "hard board" able to cancel raises.

He admits it's a long shot.

An expert in labor issues tends to agree.

"Force the unions to the table, under the threat of a control board? I think it falls flat on its face," said Cliff Suggs, a former federal mediator on the faculty of Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations. "The control board might be able to freeze my wages. They can't take anything away."

Suggs, who has mediated issues between the county and its unions, believes the county worker has been made a scapegoat by some leaders and by the general public. The unions bargained for their benefits, he said. "The unions didn't go in with a gun and say, 'You will give me this.' "

If the Legislature endorses Giambra's four-year plan, it would help him confront the unions.

If the Legislature doesn't embrace the plan by Oct. 1, the same events might unfold. The control board, free to become a panel with teeth, would expect him to pursue his recommendations. After all, many were added by the board's own consultant, The PFM Group.

Legislators did nothing about the plan Tuesday. They are in a behind-the-scenes struggle over whether the property tax increase, plus expensive deficit financing, can be altered by raising the sales tax. They have 11 more days to find a consensus.

In the four-year plan's 28 pages analyzing the work force, Giambra and PFM raise these questions:

Should Erie County employees receive free health coverage when 88 percent of private sector workers nationwide pay a portion of their premiums and 44 state governments, including New York's, also ask their workers to pay a share?

The county gives $100 a month to employees who opt out of family coverage and join the plan offered by their spouse's employer, but should the county still pay $100 when the spouse's employer also is Erie County?

Why does the county grant its average worker 15 sick days a year, about five days more than the private sector average, and why does the Erie County worker take 10 days' sick leave in a typical year, twice what a private worker takes? For the year that ended in August, during which morale plummeted amid layoffs and budget acrimony, county workers averaged 14.9 sick days.

Why do Erie County workers get eight hours' pay for working six hours during the summer? Why do they get full benefits even before completing a probation period? And why can they get extra cash if they regularly take less than their one-hour paid lunch?

Many county employees and union leaders feel like pinatas. Their workloads rose sharply when 1,500 full- and part-time co-workers were laid off, and many officials and the general public believe the more they pummel the unions, the more likely a fortune in savings will spill out.

Union leaders are quick to counter that Giambra now targets many of the benefits he once granted. For instance, workers don't contribute to their health insurance premiums because they agreed to a single provider, saving millions. Retirees now get free health insurance because that was offered in exchange for no raise in 2004.

While workers get 15 sick days a year, they aren't covered by New York State disability insurance, so they must bank sick time to brace for a serious illness. Workers are eligible for extended sick leave after 10 years on the job.

When debating how to patch the 2005 deficit, some leaders and citizens suggested a 10 percent pay cut for all. But many employees lost income anyway by bumping into lower paying jobs to survive rounds of layoffs. Concessions by the blue-collar union provided the flexibility to open the county's parks this summer on an austere budget.

The Civil Service Employees Association has stressed that its members shouldn't have to pay for Giambra's poor budget-making.

Local 815 President Joan Bender and other high-ranking leaders say their contract doesn't expire until the end of 2006, and the CSEA does not intend to change it.

"We have told Joel there are cost-saving initiatives we would be happy to work with him on, and he is only interested in his things. We have been told in no uncertain terms that it's his way or the highway," Bender said.

". . . There's no way I can go back to our members and ask them to give away things for nothing. And they would vote them down anyway."

John Orlando, who heads the county's blue-collar union, has said he wants to keep the control board soft because he sees the trouble Buffalo's board has caused for the city's workers. But Orlando, now negotiating a new contract, has said he will not bend on many of Giambra's requests.

Giambra's report says Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Pittsburgh, recovered financially by wringing savings from their personnel costs, along with other measures. But New York requires its governments to negotiate nearly all changes to past practices because public employee unions are barred from striking.

"Unions throughout the state, particularly in Western New York, have sort of drifted toward extraordinarily generous deals that make government workers inefficient," said E.J. McMahon, director of the Empire Center for New York State Policy, an affiliate of the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think-tank.

"Their general tendency, in order, is never to give back anything they won at the bargaining table. Before they do that they will take a wage freeze with the full intention of getting it back at the other end, at the first sign of a refreshment in revenues.

"They will also tend to take layoffs . . . because after all layoffs in the traditional union sense are to the least important union members. The most important members, the tail that wags the union dog, are the most senior members.

"So unions tend to accept layoffs," McMahon said, "and accept them fairly readily as an alternative to givebacks, and then go out and bemoan the consequences for public service after the layoffs occur."

Suggs, of the Cornell school, has a different take: "One of the things you need in doing any type of bargaining is you need a solid basis of trust. That certainly has not happened, at least in this county situation," he said. "It has been unfortunate."

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com

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