Schenectady’s unions are considering an unprecedented mid-term contract change as Mayor Brian U. Stratton warns of massive layoffs.
The city has asked every union to approve a health insurance consolidation that could save the city money while not costing employees more.
The goal is to get down to a sole provider, with which the city could negotiate a better rate with its increased buying power. But the city can’t do that unless every union agrees to accept the same health provider.
Making matters more difficult, the city wants the unions to agree within weeks. That would allow the city to start saving money in the last quarter of the year, rather than waiting until next year.
So far, the proposal has gotten a positive reaction from two of the city’s three largest unions.
“We’re being cautious, but we’re optimistically cautious,” said David Orr, president of the firefighters’ union.
CSEA President Jim Nevins said his union is open to the idea as well.
CSEA insurance experts have agreed with the city’s claim that workers won’t pay more — and might even pay less on copays and prescription drugs, Nevins said.
The big question now is whether the police union will be willing to consider the idea. PBA President Robert Hamilton did not return a call seeking comment, but the city just concluded a four-year effort to negotiate a new contract with the police. This deal was not included in that contract.
Nevins did not mention the police union by name, but warned that other unions could stop the process in its tracks.
“Everything hinges on all the other unions,” he said. “It could all be blown out of the water by the other unions.”
Stratton is already talking tough with the firefighters, warning that some of them could be laid off because their contract does not guarantee minimum staffing. But the police do have that guarantee, meaning the city would be forced to pay overtime if it cut staff.
The CSEA executive board plans to discuss the city’s proposal this week and then schedule a union meeting where city officials would make their pitch. The union would vote in a secret ballot to decide whether to accept the proposal, Nevins said.
The whole process may take months, which may mean that the city won’t save money this year.
The city needs to consolidate insurance by Oct. 1 to get any savings this year — and may need to give several months’ notice to its providers before consolidating. So time is of the essence.
“They gave us a July deadline. That’s totally impossible,” Nevins said.
Orr said the fire union isn’t close to a vote yet — he needs answers to specific insurance questions first.
He said he wasn’t sure if his union would come to a decision by Sept. 1, adding, “July is very difficult.”
Both Orr and Nevins said the mayor’s threat of layoffs was not “driving” the negotiation, but both admitted it had an affect on them.
“You’re always worried if they’re talking layoffs,” Nevins said.
Orr, who was laid off from the fire department for 11 months in 1996, added, “That memory … is still very present. [The threat] colors the conversation. I would not let that be a driving force in how we decide.”
The mayor said he may not have much of a choice if he can’t get contractual savings.
“If we don’t get the reductions we need, the alternative makes staff reductions all that more likely,” he said.
Schenectady must cut $13 million in expenses, or raise that amount in new revenue, to avoid massive layoffs this fall or a huge tax increase next spring. Next year’s budget is forecast to have a $13 million deficit.