Saturday, January 20, 2007

Washington County MN. Librarians in AFSCME 517 Rally in the Cold

The Stillwater Gazette reports:

Negotiators representing Washington County and its largest employees' union returned to the table today to hammer out a contract to replace the one that expired on Saturday, both sides optimistic they can reach an agreement relatively soon.

At issue is Washington County's contract with the local chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which represents 644 of the county's roughly 1,150 workers. The union represents county professional and clerical/technical staff throughout a wide range of departments, from Washington County librarians to desk workers at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Not surprisingly, negotiations hinge on wages and health insurance costs.

"At this point, the county and AFSCME are continuing to negotiate, and we are confident that we'll successfully agree to a new contract in the not-too-distant future," Washington County Administrator Jim Schug said Monday night.

Said Scott Grefe, AFSCME's lead negotiator: "We're a ways apart, yet, but there has been no indication that we can't bridge the gap,"

About 125 county employees braved near-zero temperatures to attend a lunchtime rally outside the Washington County Government Center on Tuesday.

Grefe said the rally was held to let county officials know how important this round of negotiations is to AFSCME Local 517 members.

"Over the years, when you negotiate some of these contracts, you kind of get this 'business as usual' mindset - you know, we'll give a little, they'll give a little, we'll give a little, they'll give a little, and then you meet somewhere in the middle," he said. "We really want to let the county know that there has to be a little more give this time, because this isn't a business-as-usual-type negotiation."

Grefe said that union members are tired of watching their real buying power decrease every year, and they are asking for wage increases that keep pace with inflation.

"All we're trying to do is, is get to a point where we're stopping the erosion. We're not trying to look for a windfall. Nobody's trying to enrich themselves. We're just trying to just get people to the point where they can say, 'At least my buying power isn't less than it was last year, two years ago, or five years ago,'" he said.

The county's offer currently stands at a 2.75 percent wage increase in 2007, with increases of 2.25 percent and 2.5 percent following in 2008 and 2009, respectively.

Grefe wouldn't say what AFSCME was requesting, but he said he would be happy with something that kept pace with inflation.

Washington County's chief negotiator, Frank Madden, said the county's recent contract and current offer is "very competitive" with increases in the consumer price index, when seniority-based pay-scale increases are taken into account along with annual wage increases.

County contracts are set up so that a clerk with five years of experience, for example, earns more than someone who has held the same position for four years, who in turn makes more than someone who has only had the job for three years.

"If you compare county wages with the consumer price index over the years, you have to not only look at what people get as a general wage increase, but also at how people move up the step structure," Madden said. "If you looked at the numbers taking both general wage increases and step increases into account, we are well above the CPI index on the trend line since 2000 or so. That's real money in one's pocket."

Both negotiators said the tone of the discussions so far has been good, and they are confident they will be able to reach an agreement.

Still, AFSCME 517 President Judie Atkins said the negotiations are moving "very, very slowly," adding that union representatives will be meeting to weigh their options, if they do not feel they are presented with a fair contract by the end of the week.

"Through the years, our contracts have not had much of an increase, and we are falling very far behind. With the cost of health insurance these days, it's really very hard for us to keep up," she said. "I just think that we deserve a fair shake. We deserve to be treated fairly, and it doesn't seem like we're being treated that way."

But both sides continue to talk, and AFSCME's Grefe sees that as the most important thing.

"Our respective proposals have been getting whittled down some, and we're now to the point where every thing is very important," he said.

"To this point, it's been fairly collegial. We're still having back-and-forth rounds of bargaining, and both sides are still talking," he continued. "As far as I'm concerned, as a negotiator, as long as both sides can still be talking, there's still an upside."

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