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Unions declare war on county freeze

By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO — January 4, 2011 — Citing the county’s wage and longevity bonus freezes as illegal, four unions representing more than three-quarters of the county’s workforce yesterday vowed to reverse the Legislature’s decision.
At a meeting in Monticello, representatives from the Teamsters Local 445 (representing 650 county workers), Laborers Local 17 (128), New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA, 62) and the Sullivan County Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA, 42) announced they’ve joined forces as the Sullivan County Public Employees and Taxpayers’ Alliance.
While this union of unions is not an incorporated entity with its own powers, it will lead the battle by filing a grievance with the Public Employee Relations Board (PERB) and possibly hiring an independent firm to audit the county’s finances.
“We just discussed it today,” Teamsters leader Adrian Huff told the press. “We’ll be discussing things as they happen.”
The audit decision will be made later this week, Huff added, while the PERB grievance process may take months to play out.
In the meantime, the wage and longevity bonus freezes are in effect – no four percent increase in salary, and no $100-per-year-of-service longevity bonus.
“In our opinion, it is illegal,” said Huff. “They should have paid those wages come January 1. It’s in our contract.”
Todd Diorio of Laborers 17 said those contracts were negotiated two years ago in good faith.
“We’re not reopening discussions on our contract,” he insisted.
Huff and Teamsters Business Agent Sandy Shaddock argued that the unions have given enough over the years, while county management has not sacrificed as much.
“They’re working through their lunch hours, their breaks,” Shaddock remarked of union workers who have lost so many of their colleagues that they can’t take a break without risking the delivery of necessary services.
“The rank-and-file have lost confidence in the ‘upstairs’ government,” said Huff. “We believe the department heads have also lost confidence in the management of Sullivan County.”
County Manager David Fanslau, however, said Huff and Shaddock are ignoring raises given in the past and reality itself – i.e., a 63 percent hike in foreclosures this year in Sullivan County.
“I would say the unions are not recognizing the costs being absorbed by the taxpayers,” he remarked in a separate interview.
Fanslau pointed out that the county is paying higher pension contributions and health insurance premiums this year, equating to a 5-10 percent salary hike for the average county employee.
That echoes a letter drafted by Fanslau and signed by eight of the nine legislators yesterday (Frank Armstrong did not sign, for reasons unknown).
Sent to all county employees, it states that the freeze “is considerably much better and preferable than forcing a significant workforce reduction simply to provide the remaining employees with more compensation in 2011.”
Expecting a successful legal challenge by the unions, Fanslau confirmed he is working on a workforce reduction plan to present to legislators, who will then decide where they want to cut.
Such a discussion to cut between 70-200 jobs could begin this month – indeed, Fanslau said he might recommend laying off staff before the PERB grievance process is complete.
Legislators at the Government Center yesterday said they’d prefer to work with the unions but insisted a $3.3 million budget gap must be overcome either via the freezes or layoffs.
“I feel it’s better to have everyone employed and have benefits and retirement rather than 100 people sitting at home without retirement and benefits,” explained Legislator Leni Binder.
“Given the state of the national and state economies,” added Legislator Alan Sorensen, “now more than ever is the time to continue the dialogue ... to see if we can work together to solve the budget crisis.”
But if that can’t happen, warned Legislator Ron Hiatt, then full-timers may become part-timers, and others may lose their jobs entirely.
“We don’t want to,” he stressed, “but we can.”
Shaddock, however, said county leaders have only implemented one of 30 cost-saving ideas the Teamsters recommended back in the summer.
Legislators replied that only that one recommendation was feasible and/or legal, but Shaddock said the county still has options other than laying off personnel – including re-examining contracts with outside agencies.
“There are ideas out there to explore,” she observed.
“What part don’t they understand?” replied a frustrated Binder, who pointed out that both the state and federal governments are planning to implement wage freezes this year.
“Sullivan County’s economy is not unique,” agreed Fanslau, “and the call for a wage freeze is not out there on an island by itself.”
“The decision by my fellow legislators was a difficult one and was not taken lightly,” added Legislator Jodi Goodman, “but our goal is to protect people and keep them employed.
“Adhering to [union] contracts will not protect people and keep them employed,” she concluded.
In their letter to employees, legislators contended that union leaders aren’t giving their members a chance to decide the issue.
Union reps did confirm that no official member votes were held on the matter, but they felt quite secure the membership is behind them.
“Our take is that they [members] can’t give any more,” explained Shaddock.
One of the allied unions, Laborers 17, likely won’t be facing layoffs due to the county’s recent written commitment to maintain a minimum of 128 positions in the Division of Public Works, whose workers the union represents. (Though Fanslau said that commitment does not delineate full-time versus part-time jobs.)
Another union, the PBA, has been working without a contract for four years, so basically only the bonus is at stake.
But all four unions said they’re standing firm.
“Our sense is that they [county leaders] have a contractual obligation to the employees, and they need to meet that,” said Huff.
Fanslau said that unions are welcome to review the county’s annual independent audit, but he’s as firm as the union reps.
“We’re not playing games,” he stated. “There is no money available to provide increased wages.”

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