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Latest News - February 2012

February 25, 2012
Negotiations heat up between the city and its 11 unions
Source: Stamford Advocate
By: Kate King

STAMFORD -- Negotiations are heating up between the city and its unions, with the largest bargaining units preparing for a lengthy fight as city negotiators target union employees' health care and pension benefits.

All 11 union contracts -- excluding the Board of Education -- are up for renewal and so far only one agreement has been ratified. Human Resources Director Emmet Hibson, who joined the city in May 2010, is leading the city's negotiating team and said his main goal is to rein in wage increases and boost worker contributions to health care and retirement plans.

"We're looking to control wages with at least getting one year of a zero (percent increase)," Hibson said. "We're looking to alter the health care plan both for active (employees) and retirees and do something with the pension plans. That's really the framework with what we're trying to negotiate, and that's what we've been consistent with in our dialogue."

Many union representatives say their members can't afford wage freezes or increased benefit costs. Stamford laid off 100 positions in 2010, and many unions were forced to accept unpaid furlough days, which in many cases effectively negated any general wage increases they received.

"We're just looking for a fair deal," said Jeff Dinnan, president of the United Electric union, which represents workers in the Highways, Solid Waste, Engineering and Parks departments. "We understand things are different and times are hard, but financially the city isn't in that bad shape."

Dinnan said he doesn't think his 120-member union is close to reaching a deal. The two sides are in arbitration.

"We're definitely still at odds," Dinnan said. "I think over time we've come closer, but I just don't think we're at a point where we'll be able to settle anything quickly."

The United Electrical union has negotiated with the city for more than a year and now has arbitration dates scheduled for March. The city is offering 2 percent wage increases in exchange for dramatically higher pension and medical coverage contributions, Dinnan said.

"We came into negotiations offering to pay more for the medical, we wanted to pay more into the pension," he said. "We knew the raises weren't going to be huge. We came into this realistically. But they want to fix many years of bad bargaining in one shot. And we didn't think that was a fair way to do it."

Hibson said the city's structural costs are unsustainable. Rising health care costs, coupled with the effects of the economic recession, have driven up expenses for medical and other benefit plans. Between 2010 and 2011, health care, pension and other post-employment benefit expenses jumped by more than $18 million.

"We're not looking to take benefits away for the sole purpose of making people's lives miserable," Hibson said. "We're looking to manage a budget. From a policy perspective, it makes sense to start with new hires and then starting to work around the edges on the benefits, to try to make (workers) kick in a little more money."

Most of the union contracts up for renewal were signed in 2005 and extended past the 2009 expiration date. Union representatives are coming to the bargaining table this year with one less weapon in their negotiating arsenal after the state ruled in 2010 that the city did not have to consider no-layoff clauses in contract talks.

But several union representatives managed to put the city's negotiating team on the defensive last April when they lodged a complaint with the state Board of Labor Relations. The grievance claimed Human Resources employee Christopher Dellaselva exercised a "chilling effect" on a union rally held outside the Stamford Government Center when he took photographs of the demonstration. Hibson has admitted Dellaselva took the pictures, but said it was a mistake and not malicious. The labor board will hold a hearing on the complaint March 12.



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