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'We put you in your seats, we can put you out,' union chief tells Tonawanda Board

About 70 members of the Hourly Employees Association of the Town of Tonawanda picketed outside of the Town of Tonawanda board meeting Monday to express frustration of being without a contract for the past six years.

Once inside, the union president threatened to oust the Town Board, which the union has supported for election.

"We put you in your seats and we can put you out in November," Paul Catalano told the board.

Three of the four board members, Lisa M. Chimera, John A. Bargnesi Jr. and William C. Conrad, III, all Democrats, are being challenged by Republicans Damon D. Piatek, Charles E. Sankey and Paul D. Christian, and some union members carried signs for these candidates as they picketed on Monday.

Supervisor Joseph Emminger said he was disappointed that the union had tried to make this a political issue, saying, "This is not Democrat or Republican issue."

"The Town Board represents the 73,000 residents of the Town of Tonawanda. We love and appreciate our town workers, but we can't do everything that they want us to do for them," he said.

Catalano said retroactive pay and health insurance are the main issues in the ongoing contract talks between the town and the HEATT union, which represents 190 hourly workers, mostly laborers and maintenance workers.

In a statement, the HEATT union said the town proposed workers give up six years of cost of living and retroactive pay, which would save the town $6 million, but the town is not offering a fair wage increase in return.

Emminger said 48 percent of the hourly employees don't pay for health care, and the town can't afford that anymore. He said most of those employees receive a family plan which costs the town $25,000 per year, per employee. He said the town has proposed offering a cheaper plan with higher co-pays and having the unions kick in five percent of the costs for this plan. He said the town can't continue to offer plans with $5 co-pays.

HEATT said in its literature to the public that its union has agreed to pay 5 percent towards health insurance, but noted that the lesser plan's "increases in co-pays and premiums would eat up any offered wage increases."

Emminger acknowledged that the HEATT workers have not received retroactive pay, but he noted that the town's health insurance premiums for all workers have gone up dramatically - nearly a $1 million a year each year, or about 48 percent over the past six years.

He said health insurance costs made up $18 million of the town's $101 million budget in 2017.

Emminger the town also cannot continue to offer lifetime insurance to retirees because of the cost.

Nate Golonka, a highway employee, said the town needs to look at its employees as individuals, not just numbers.

"We work out in the scorching sun and in freezing weather," said Golonka. "This job is making us unhealthy. We don't sit in an office. We are working until we injure ourselves ... As taxpayers and employees, we should be the biggest asset in this town."

Emminger said he'd like to see the union come to the bargaining table more often and offered to meet with any employees who had questions.

The town has also been in negotiations with the town salaried workers union, 147 employees, since 2011 and is asking them for the same concessions, he said. The town recently settled a contract with the police union and its 103 employees, and members agreed to contribute 5 percent towards their health care costs.


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