Share this article

print logo

Niagara County contract talks spur rally; 6 public workers unions to protest lack of progress

As the level of hostility between Niagara County and its unions seems to be escalating, the six unions have announced a joint rally to be held before Tuesday's County Legislature meeting.

The rally will be at 5:30 p.m. outside the County Courthouse, 90 minutes before the Legislature convenes.

All six unions' contracts expired at the end of 2011, and talks on new deals aren't going well.

In a newsletter to his members, Thomas Lafornia, president of the county's unit of the Civil Service Employees Association, said he had "two unsuccessful, uneventful and practically meaningless sessions."

"It appears the county is only interested in having us surrender various items. The issue of rewarding workers for jobs well done is not on [county officials'] priority list," he said.

County Manager Jeffrey M. Glatz's opening proposal last fall was a call for workers to take a 5 percent pay cut and pay 20 percent of their insurance premiums.

He said last week that the unions have to "look at ways of reducing benefits, instead of layoffs or a double-digit tax increase. At some point, somebody's got to put the brakes on."

The Coalition of Niagara County Public Employees, as the group of six unions calls itself, accounts for more than 1,200 unionized county workers.

"Jeff Glatz has repeatedly and indirectly let it be known that those individuals that comprise the public employees unions are basically unimportant," the coalition said in a news release. "The coalition feels his words and subsequent actions have become the biggest threat not only to all county employees but to all of organized labor in Niagara County in general. This is nothing but a blatant attack on the hardworking middle class that make up a majority of the county taxpayers."

"These issues we have to deal with, we didn't create," Glatz said. He mentioned the state-imposed 2 percent cap on tax levy increases, while pension and Medicaid costs increase at rates beyond 2 percent.

William Rutland, president of the county blue-collar union, said the six unions still want to bargain as one when it comes to health insurance, a move Glatz has refused to allow.

"Health insurance is something that affects everybody, and we all ended up in the same health plan anyway, since we gave up cosmetic surgery [coverage]," said Rutland, head of the county's unit of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Glatz insisted that the unions can't bargain as a group on health insurance because there are six contracts, not one. He also said the health plans differ in "nuances."

The unions have sought detailed internal information on health-plan usage and costs, so they can seek proposals on their own from insurers for a new county plan.

"I guess now's the time to see if we can get a better deal," Rutland said.

But Glatz has refused to provide all the information the unions requested. He said he is not revealing the amount of fees charged by Independent Health, calling that "proprietary for the provider."

"So [the unions] think they're the ones managing this?" Glatz asked. He said the unions could always form a consortium and seek to create their own health plan, with the county paying a share of it.

"I haven't seen anybody come back and take us up on that," he said.

"The rally is basically a gathering of the unions to inform the public that the county is asking us to bargain in the dark," said James Briggs, chief negotiator for the sheriff's deputies' and probation officers' unions.

A grievance was filed with the state Public Employment Relations Board over the health insurance disclosure issue and Glatz's decision to bar most union workers from receiving their automatic "step" wage increases this year. He insisted that was permitted under the union contracts.

Lafornia said in an interview, "What we're trying to do [at the rally] is show a united demonstration against the actions of the county, especially denying the people the step increases they had negotiated."

"They're doing their job, trying to get the best for their membership," Glatz said. "I don't have an endless pot of money where I can give you whatever you want."

Lafornia said he expects a large turnout for Tuesday's rally, including support from private-sector union representatives.

"The rally isn't just about the unions. It's about our community," Briggs said.