An upcoming contract vote could set the stage for a showdown between two public employee unions seeking to represent nearly three-quarters of the Schenectady County government work force.
The United Public Service Employees Union is seeking to represent county workers who are now members of the Civil Service Employees Association, Local 1000. The CSEA local is the largest of the three bargaining units in Schenectady County government, representing approximately 750 people.
The UPSEU has sent letters to CSEA members asking them to sign membership cards.
A call to the UPSEU office was not returned.
The UPSEU’s ability to represent the Schenectady County workers will hinge on the outcome of a ratification vote for a new contract, according to County Attorney Chris Gardner. The vote is expected to occur within two weeks, a CSEA official said.
If membership rejects the proposed contract, then the UPSEU can file a petition on or after May 1 that seeks to represent the employees. If the membership approves the contract, then the UPSEU cannot file a petition for another year, Gardner said.
The proposed two-year contract offers CSEA employees raises of 1.5 percent per year and other minor enhancements, Gardner said. He called the proposal the county’s “last, final and best offer.” The previous four-year contract expired Jan. 1.
Gardner said a 1.5 percent raise would equal $750 for the average county employee, who earns $50,000 and has 13 years of seniority. He called the raises fair and said they represent the “core inflation rate.”
“We have worked extremely hard to treat employees fairly. A lot of employees at the federal level are taking zero percent increases,” Gardner said.
In addition to raises, county employees receive annual step increases worth between 2 percent and 3 percent of their pay. They stop receiving steps after nine years of service. At the 10th year of service, for every five years thereafter, they receive longevity pay worth about 3 percent of their pay. Steps and longevity remain unaffected under the proposed contract, meaning an employee’s raise would be higher than 1.5 percent following ratification.
Gardner said CSEA leadership did not approve of the contract’s terms but agreed to bring them before the membership for a vote. CSEA spokeswoman Therese Assalian said the union will discuss the proposed contract with members in meetings next week, with a vote to follow. She had no comment on the UPSEU’s recruitment effort.
Gardner said the CSEA wanted raises of 3 percent per year for three years, sought no co-pays for health care and wanted the county to increase the number of sick days by six, to 18 per year. “We said no,” he said.
Gardner said the county has to remain neutral in the dispute between the CSEA and the UPSEU but said he believes negotiations could be delayed a year should the UPSEU win the right to represent county employees. He said a delay could affect the pot of money available for raises, if any. The county has paid for raises in prior contracts through savings obtained by controlling health care costs.
“Unless we have health care savings to help pay for pay increases, then delaying a contract for a year or more could result in no pay increases for 2011,” Gardner said.
Gardner said raises are possible in the proposed contract because the county is saving money by switching employees to a different health insurance plan and moving retirees into a Medicare managed plan.
The proposed health insurance plan has a $15 co-pay but offers enhanced coverage. The co-pay affects new hires only, Gardner said. The current health plan has no co-pay, “which is not sustainable in any model,” he said.
Gardner said the unions deserve direct credit for helping the county save money. “We have been able to reduce the county work force without layoffs and have had the best health care plans with the lowest co-pays and have reduced our health care costs from 2007 to 2011 by working with unions in a cooperative manner,” he said.
The county is also negotiating with the 160-member 1199 SEIU and the 190-member Schenectady Sheriff’s Benevolent Association. Management is not unionized and numbers about 150 people. The CSEA contract generally outlines the terms offered to the two other unions and management, which does not bargain.
The county is offering a two-year contract, rather than its usual four-year contract, to remain flexible in light of changes in the economy and the health care industry, Gardner said.
“It is a prudent approach, taking into consideration we have had the worse economic downturn since Great Depression,” he said.