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Niagara County declares impasse with three labor unions

LOCKPORT – Niagara County has declared an impasse with three of its six labor unions, all of which are working under terms of contracts that expired at the end of 2011.

The impasse declarations come as the county is demanding that all employees begin contributing $100 a month to their health insurance premiums, according to William Rutland, president of the county’s blue-collar union.

Such a cash contribution by employees would be a first for county unions.

Relations between the county and its unions, which soured when County Manager Jeffrey M. Glatz canceled annual raises called “step increases” at the end of 2011, are not improving.

Last week, the County Legislature voted to appropriate $35,500 from the contingency fund for professional services used to contest arbitration demands and grievance filings by employees. Originally, that expense was budgeted for only $7,000 this year.

“You’re going to need the extra money in that fund, because we’re not going to stop fighting,” Rutland told the lawmakers during Tuesday’s public comment period.

Rutland’s union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, was handed an impasse notice during a bargaining session Monday.

Previously, Glatz said, the county had made the same declaration to its largest union, the Civil Service Employees Association, and to the Deputy Sheriffs Association, which represents corrections officers at the County Jail.

So far, the county has not declared that talks are stymied with the Police Benevolent Association, which represents road patrol deputies and investigators; the Probation Officers Association; or the Teamsters Union, which represents workers at the county Sewer District.

Glatz said a fact-finder has been appointed by the state Public Employment Relations Board, but no meetings have been scheduled.

“Impasse means nothing,” Rutland told the Legislature. “It’s a waste of time and a waste of taxpayers’ money.”

That’s because the state fact-finder has no authority to impose or compel an agreement. Sometimes mediation succeeds in getting the sides to bargain anew; sometimes it doesn’t.

The only union that can obtain binding arbitration is the PBA, Human Resources Director Peter P. Lopes said.

The CSEA, with about 800 members, is by far the largest of the county unions. AFSCME has 163 members, including 35 part-timers, according to Rutland.

There are about 135 members in the corrections officers’ union, 106 in the PBA and 27 in the probation union, Lopes said.

The Teamsters, which represents only about a dozen sewer workers, also was the only union to successfully challenge Glatz’s edict against step increases.

“They had different language than us,” Rutland said. Lopes confirmed that.

Glatz said there was an arbitration case filed by the Teamsters, which the county chose to settle.

Rutland said AFSCME is about to challenge county job postings that include the salary on Step 8, the top step of the pay scale. Without step increases, new employees won’t ever reach that step, so the postings are misleading, Rutland contends.

“How can you post a job with a salary the county doesn’t intend to pay?” he asked. “Our counsel recommended challenging Step 8. Step 8 is guaranteed in the contract.”

Rutland noted that in the contract that expired in 2011, new employees were to be paid on a scale with salary figures 15 percent lower than that for pre-existing employees.

“With the removal of Step 8, it’s 30 percent,” Rutland said. “Over eight years, the steps give you a 15 percent raise.”

Lopes said the county wouldn’t discuss its specific bargaining position, but he did say, “We’re looking for concessions. It’s a concessionary world today.”

Rutland said the county is offering his union a 1 percent average annual pay increase on a five-year contract, but workers would have to pay that $100 a month for health insurance. Also, new hires would be barred from receiving any health coverage in retirement.

The county currently offers three health plans, and only those who take the most expensive are required to pay for it – a 10 percent share. Rutland said the county’s new demand would apply regardless of which health plan a worker chooses.

He said AFSCME countered by offering to force new hires to pay 20 percent of their health premiums and agreed to a county demand that retirees be shifted into a Medicare Advantage plan.

“They’re self-funding (insurance),” Rutland said of the county. “A lot of retirees become very expensive. Medicare Advantage is a fixed cost.”

However, that fixed cost does tend to rise every year. Meanwhile, a typical family plan costs about $1,000 a month, so the county’s position for current employees is equal to about a 10 percent contribution.

The Buffalo News reported in April that the county spent $352,753 on legal fees in 2011 and 2012 for the Buffalo law firm of Jaeckle Fleischman & Muegel, which handles its labor-related legal work.

“It should come as no surprise that unions are filing arbitrations and grievances, because there’s no way to negotiate anymore,” Rutland told the Legislature. “We don’t have new contracts with any of the unions. The county manager has drawn a line in the sand.”