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390 locked out at BlueCross Insurer vows business as usual after contract expires, talks stall on job security, outsourcing

BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York assured its customers Tuesday that business will continue as usual even though the company locked out 390 of its union workers at its downtown office after negotiations failed to produce a new contract.

Members of Local 212, Office and Professional Employees International Union, constitute slightly less than a third of the health insurer's 1,400 employees in Buffalo. They provide customer service, process claims, reproduce documents and do other clerical and support work.

BlueCross BlueShield, a division of HealthNow New York Inc., enacted a plan to avoid interruption of service by filling in with staff from Buffalo and other divisions in the parent organization, according to a company spokeswoman. Temporary workers also may be hired in some instances.

The union urged its members to report to work Tuesday morning following expiration of their contract. But those workers found themselves barred from doing so. About 100 workers stood on the sidewalks outside the health insurer's Buffalo headquarters by midmorning, occasionally chanting, "We want to work."

The union said negotiations had stalled over issues that included job security and the ability of the company to outsource or subcontract work now done by the bargaining unit.

The union, which has lost 160 jobs over the last four years, was concerned that the company wanted more leeway that could reduce the union ranks further and ultimately lead to moving the jobs out of Western New York, according to Deana Fox, business representative for Local 212.

The talks also snarled over work schedules, layoff procedures and production standards.

A BlueCross BlueShield official said the company had submitted what it characterized as a final offer Saturday. It also told the union and a federal mediator that, without a new agreement, the health insurer would not allow employees to work past the old contract's expiration at 11:59 p.m. Monday, said Julie Snyder, director of corporate relations.

"We extended an invitation to the union to conduct a meeting and ratification vote on Monday afternoon, on company-paid time at our offices, in order to give our employees the opportunity to view the company offer," she said.

Snyder said the union did not accept the offer, which the company posted on its website at www.bcbswny.com/contract.

The union said it was seeking greater job security for its members.

"They're locking out workers because they're arguing for job security," Fox said. "They clearly do not respect the work force."

"It was [our] hope to bring back a tentative agreement that could be recommended by the committee. But the company is choosing to lock out the work force to put pressure on you to accept the substandard terms," the union said on its website, www.opeiulocal212.org.

The union accused BlueCross BlueShield of "playing games" with the negotiating process by posting the insurer's offer on the Internet.

"As the company posted on their website at approximately 6:30, we were still in caucus waiting for them to reply to our last proposal," union officials wrote on their website.

The union also characterized the offer as "deceiving," contending it did not include "exact proposed language."

The two sides held contract talks Monday, but the negotiations failed to yield an agreement. Negotiations began in mid-February. The union had warned its members since mid-April that a lockout was possible, but Thursday a BlueCross BlueShield spokeswoman denied union claims that a lockout was being planned.

Snyder said the company believed Thursday that a lockout was unlikely, but conditions quickly changed as the parties approached expiration.

BlueCross BlueShield also filed two unfair-labor-practice grievances with the National Labor Relations Board, Snyder said. The grievances contend the union failed to bargain in good faith and tried to gain leverage in negotiations by trying to persuade organizations to cancel or not engage in business with the health insurer.

No new negotiations are scheduled, and Fox characterized the two sides as far apart on the job security issue.

"I feel very betrayed," said Donna Amos of Cheektowaga, who has worked at BlueCross BlueShield for 39 years.

"We want to work. There are excellent employees here," she said. "We would have taken an extension on the contract."

BlueCross BlueShield officials said they notified the union that its members are not to report to work until a new contract is ratified. In defense of the action, Snyder cited a 1990 contract negotiation in which employees were allowed to work without a contract. She said members of the bargaining unit disrupted the business.

"If employees are allowed to work while talks continue, there is no incentive for the union to reach agreement," Snyder said.

e-mail: drobinson@buffnews.com and hdavis@buffnews.com

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