July 26, 2008

Carcieri: No More Talks With Council 94

By Steve Peoples; Governor Carcieri

After members of the largest union of state employees reject an agreement accepted by their leaders, the governor refuses to negotiate further.

PROVIDENCE -- Governor Carcieri issued a statement yesterday flatly refusing to negotiate with the state's largest employee union, a day after members rejected a four-year contract proposal that the Republican governor brokered to help balance the state budget.

The resounding no vote was largely seen as a rebuke to the governor and a handful of key union leaders who helped craft the deal. They included Dennis Grilli, executive director of Council 94, American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees.

Council 94 rank-and-file members voted 2,870-196 to reject the agreement. The election results were announced Thursday.

Union leaders want the Carcieri administration to return to the bargaining table to improve the deal.

The governor said yesterday that he is done talking.

"There will be no resumption of negotiations with Council 94," Carcieri said. "My administration spent six months and hundreds of hours negotiating the terms of this agreement with representatives of Council 94. Those representatives agreed to the terms that were finally negotiated. There were numerous concessions from the state, including not going forward with the layoff of hundreds of employees and guaranteed wage increases of 8.5 percent over the four-year contract."

Grilli said Council 94 would probably file an unfair labor practice charge with the state Board of Labor Relations as soon as Monday. Grilli and other labor leaders believe that the Carcieri administration is required to negotiate under the state's labor laws.

"This is uncharted territory. But we believe we still are protected by the law," Grilli said. "Rather than all this posturing, I think we should sit down."

Carcieri administration officials, however, maintain that they are not required to negotiate. They believe that Council 94 currently has no contractual rights. The administration issued letters last month officially terminating its most recent contract, which expired July 1.

The governor's chief legal counsel, Kernan F. King, said Thursday he believes Carcieri can act unilaterally to force changes on those unions that rejected the deal.

"Basically, you don't have a contract in effect. What happens then?" King said. "If they don't ratify, they have unpredictability. It may not operate in their long-term advantage."

Neither King nor the governor's office would clarify what course of action it may take, besides refusing to negotiate. Carcieri said he would announce his plans next week.

Council 94 rejected the same deal that went to 13 smaller unions that make up the other two-thirds of the state's work force. At least seven of the independent unions have voted to accept the four- year contract, while three have voted it down. The rest will vote in the coming days.

Council 94's no vote jeopardizes more than $10 million in savings for the state's current budget year resulting from delayed pay raises and increased health-care costs for union members. To meet budget targets, the governor needs the changes to be in effect by the end of the month.

"The state's financial status is not improving," Carcieri said. "As governor, I am obligated by law to balance our state's budget and will do so."

It's unclear how long it may take the state Labor Relations Board to resolve the issue, if indeed Council 94 leaders file an unfair labor practice complaint next week. The board has a hearing process. And any resolution can be appealed to Superior Court.

State law also lays out another path.

Should the governor and a union fail to reach an agreement after 30 days of negotiations, either side may request non-binding mediation. Should mediation fail to produce a result, they could then move to arbitration, which is non-binding on issues related to salary and benefits.

National Education Association Executive Director Robert A. Walsh, who helped negotiate the agreement, said yesterday he expects the governor's office to pursue this path.

"We may argue with the governor's office about what the next step is ... but it will be a continuation of the process under the statutory language," he said. "I don't want any of our folks to be losing sleep over the weekend based on what they hear or read. I understand that tensions are running high and people are nervous."

The highlights of the agreement include: pay raises of zero, 2.5 percent, 3 percent and 3 percent during each of the next four years; a one-day pay reduction in the current year that employees can recoup as a paid leave day; and escalating increases in the percentage of the premium the employees will be required to pay for their health insurance.

"There will be no resumption of negotiations with Council 94."

Originally published by Steve Peoples, Journal State House Bureau.

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