Friday, August 31, 2001

City services at risk in contract dispute

By Dan Klepal
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        A contract dispute between the city of Cincinnati and nearly 2,500 of its unionized employees threatens to disrupt services ranging from garbage collection and street maintenance to sewer-plant operations.

        Members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) have been at odds with the city since June over the terms of its proposed contract.

        The union represents nearly half of the city's employees, in every aspect of city operations.

        When contract negotia tions hit an impasse in August, a neutral party was appointed to produce an independent contract proposal — called a “fact-finding report.” The contract expired Aug. 4, but workers have remained on the job during the fact-finding process.

        Union members voted Wednesday on that proposed contract. If the report is rejected by a three-fifths majority, the negotiations will have to start from scratch.

        The handwritten ballots were tallied late into the night Thursday; results are expected today.

        “I think it's a good con tract,” said Mayor Charlie Luken. “I hope they approve it.”

        Bob Turner, regional director of AFSCME, said his organization will do everything it can to avoid a strike. But union members already have voted to allow leadership to call a strike, he said.

        “If the report is rejected, we would hope to go back to the bargaining table and see if we can work out the issues,” Mr. Turner said. “If we can't, the possibility is that we could go out on strike.”

        The main sticking points in the contract negotiations are financial — specifically the amount of employee pay increases and the amount of medical insurance premiums covered by employees.

        City Manager John Shirey said the state of the city's budget and increasing health-care costs combined to doom negotiations.

        “The city is facing a $17 million deficit next year,” Mr. Shirey said. “But you can't talk about that without talking about the wildly escalating cost of medical care for our employees.

        “Our providers have told us we're looking at 10-15 percent increase in medical care every year for as far as the eye can see. That's huge money to us.”

        The independent fact finder, Mitchell Goldberg, is recommending a 3 percent pay increase for employees in each of the three years of the contract.

        Mr. Goldberg also is recommending that employees contribute 5 percent of total premium costs in the first year; 7 percent in the second year; and 10 percent in the third year.

        Mr. Shirey said he thinks city council members will support the proposed contract.

        “I've asked them to tell me if they don't support it and nobody has,” Mr. Shirey said.

        Mr. Turner isn't so sure about the union members. He said the health-insurance premiums negate any wage increases offered.

        “The premiums pretty much wipe out the raise,” Mr. Turner said. “Not completely. But once you pay the premiums and add in the taxes that come with any raise, their take-home pay increased a very, very small amount.”

        Marilyn Eisbrouch, of North Avondale, would lose her child's day care at the North Avondale Community Center if city employees go on strike. She said that would be devastating and hopes the issues are resolved before a strike.

        “City workers have been cut on benefits in the past and they're about to cut them again,” Ms. Eisbrouch said. “We need our city workers.”


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