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Six Niagara unions join forces over insurance

The six unions that represent Niagara County employees want to bargain together over county health insurance benefits, a move County Manager Jeffrey M. Glatz rejects.

The coalition of the six unions will meet at 6 p.m. Tuesday in the Lewiston No. 2 Fire Company on Saunders Settlement Road, in a session open to any unionized employee, to consider the benefits of unity in contract negotiations. The unions' old contracts expired Dec. 31.

The unions have identical health insurance packages, with workers allowed to choose from three options, called premium, core and value.

Glatz said he suspects the unions want to move toward more individualized plans.

"The only reason we formed the coalition was health care," said Sheriff's Deputy Timothy Callaghan, president of the Police Benevolent Association. "We're all stakeholders. We're taxpayers, too. We're trying to find ways to save money on health care."

James Briggs, chief negotiator for the unions representing probation officers and sheriff's deputies, charged that Glatz is concealing financial data about the county's self-funded health plans.

Glatz said he suspects the unions want the data to tempt other insurance providers to bid for the county's policies.

"Are you really using it for your members, or are you using it to go out and get bids from other organizations?" Glatz asked. "You're not going to find a better plan in Western New York."

"If I was running as great a program as he says, I would want it out there," Briggs said.

"To get prices for different things is wrong?" asked Thomas J. Lafornia, president of the county's unit of the Civil Service Employees Association. But he denied the unions have done that.

"We haven't gone that far," he said.

"The county is looking to change the health care plan in general," said William Rutland, president of the county unit of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. "They want the employees to pay more money. It would impact the [health reimbursement accounts] they give us. It would have an impact on co-payments."

Glatz said all six unions have their own contracts, which are not identical for topics other than health benefits, so he can't negotiate with the six acting in concert.

"That's all we want to do [together], is bargain health care. The other issues can take care of themselves," Callaghan said.

The talks got off to a rocky start in November, when Glatz's opening position was a demand for a 5 percent pay cut and for employees to pay 20 percent of their health premiums.

That came as Glatz presented a 2012 county budget that froze wages for almost all county employees, refusing to pay annual "step increases" for workers moving up their union pay scales.

The County Legislature passed that plan, the unions filed grievances charging contract violations, and the county rejected the grievances. Union leaders said a complaint to the state Public Employment Relations Board is next.

Glatz said, "We have proposals that make it doable to reinstate the steps, but it involves concessions."

"All these people we represent provide a service to the public. The county has made clear they're not going to give them what's coming to them. They're going to spend more on litigation than the steps would cost," Briggs said.