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NFTA union chief calls for binding arbitration

The head of the firefighters union at the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority said his members need binding arbitration protections to end what he says are years of living with no raises.

Donald Notaro, president of the Aircraft Rescue Firefighting Officers Association, defended legislation passed by the State Legislature this week to permit the fire and police unions at NFTA to go to binding arbitration to settle contract disputes.

NFTA officials say the bill should be vetoed by Gov. George E. Pataki because it could force fare hikes and make budgeting difficult.

But Notaro said the firefighters union, whose members average $20,000 per year less than members of the NFTA police union, have gotten no wage hikes in six of the past eight years. He said NFTA officials this week offered the union a new contract to replace the one that expired nearly two years ago with a four year deal that gives no raises in the first two years, 3 percent in the third and 1.5 percent in the final year.

Unlike most police and fire unions in the region, the NFTA's police and fire do not have binding arbitration when salary disputes arise. Instead, they can go to mediation, which is not binding on either side. NFTA officials said the bill, similar to one Pataki has vetoed twice in the past, would give the unions too much leverage in contract talks and dissuade the unions from negotiating.

"For the past 12 years, they've had no reason to negotiate with us, and mediation doesn't solve the problem," Notaro said.

Notaro also took exception to comments made by NFTA Executive Director Lawrence Meckler, who said this week that no NFTA unions have ever gone to impasse before and that NFTA has always been able to work well with its unions.

Notaro said his union reached an impasse with NFTA, resulting in a mediator being called in. "It was not helpful, and that's why there's the need for binding arbitration," Notaro said.

Meckler on Friday said the impasse lasted from April 1996 through March 1997 when the board ordered no increase in pay. Meckler said that the NFTA has given other benefits to the union's members.

Meckler said the 35 members of the union in 2003 each got a $1,000 contract signing bonus. More significant, he said, was NFTA's agreement to let the union's members join a state and local government retirement system. That move cost NFTA $415,000 in an initial payment to the pension system, and it provided an additional 2 percent of a worker's gross salary in contributions to the pension plan. Meckler said he could not comment on current negotiations with the union.

The binding arbitration measure passed the Senate and Assembly this week. It has not yet been sent to Pataki.

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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