June 16, 2008

Contract Talks Still Stalled, Unions Say

By Thomas J. Prohaska, The Buffalo News, N.Y.

Jun. 16--LOCKPORT -- Contracts for the city's five labor unions all expired at the end of 2007, and so far there is little to show for talks on new deals.

"They're kind of at a standstill," said Sam Oakes, president of the Lockport Professional Firefighters Association.

Mayor Michael W. Tucker said he instructed the city's negotiating team, headed by Deputy Corporation Counsel David

E. Blackley, to concentrate on settling health care issues with all five unions before moving on to other topics.

But those issues haven't been settled. Barbara Parker, president of the city's unit of the Civil Services Employees Association, said the sides haven't even met in two months.

"We're still trying to hammer out health care," Parker said. "Obviously, we like the plan we have. The city has some changes they'd like to see, but we can't negotiate them, because they affect retirees."

Parker said the union can't bargain for its former members, now retired, but the city can go to them individually and try to persuade them to accept changes.

"If the city wants to change the benefits for retirees, they have to do that on their own," she said. "The retirees are entitled to what they had on the day they retired."

Oakes said the fire union hasn't ruled out the notion of trying to bargain on non-health care issues before the health coverage questions are settled.

"We've got a lot of other issues. We really want to get to the table and do something. We're not going to wait forever," Oakes said.

But Tucker said health care has to come first.

"We didn't budget any money this year for raises, so if there's going to be raises, they have to come out of savings in health care," the mayor said.

In the last contracts in 2004, the city and the five unions agreed to a single-carrier health insurance plan. Blue Cross/Blue Shield was the provider.

Tucker said the deal helped control costs, and he wants to make sure all the unions continue with a single carrier. "It saves the taxpayers money," he said.

Oakes said meetings have been held with other insurance carriers "to see what they had to offer."

Oakes said the firefighters and the city have plenty of issues relating to manpower use. The union sued the city last year to prevent shifting of its dispatch duties to the Niagara County Sheriff's Office; that suit has been postponed several times at the city's request and now is not due in court until Sept. 25.

The union also won an arbitrator's ruling in February that an ambulance must be sent to every fire call. The city had tried to delete that from Fire Department policies in order to reduce the minimum staffing level, but after the arbitrator ruled, the minimum staffing was increased in March from nine to 10 firefighters per shift.

Oakes said he received a letter from the city indicating it would accept the ambulance rules instead of fighting them in court.

Besides CSEA and the firefighters, the other unions are the blue-collar American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; the Hickory Club Police Benevolent Association; and the Department Head Association.

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