AFSCME mediator search may take time
The largest state government employee union is heading into uncharted territory, calling in a mediator to help achieve a new contract.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31 has never sought mediation in state contract negotiations. But with talks stalled over the issue of employees paying more for their health insurance, the union said it didn’t have a choice.
Both the state and AFSCME agreed Wednesday to keep the current four-year contract — which will expire Monday — in place through the first mediation session. AFSCME has never had a state contract expire before a new one was hammered out.
“We didn’t think there was any way that staying at the bargaining table would narrow that gap,” said AFSCME Council 31 executive director Henry Bayer after a short negotiating session at the Hilton Springfield that he said produced “virtually no movement” on the issue of health benefits.
“The move to mediation is the next step,” Bayer said. “We hope a mediator will bring rationale to the bargaining procedure.”
The union hasn’t decided if it will seek the services of an independent mediator or use a federal mediator. Both the state and the union must agree which arbitrator will be used.
Bayer couldn’t predict how quickly a mediator will be brought into the talks.
“It conceivably could be 10 days to two weeks,” he said. “We hope we can get somebody who is experienced (with large groups of employees) and who knows something about the public sector.”
AFSCME represents about 35,000 state workers.
The value of a mediator is “to have an independent third party who doesn’t have a vested interest in one side or the other,” said AFSCME spokesman Anders Lindall. “He can meet together (with both sides). He can meet separately. He can perform shuttle diplomacy. He can assist with communication.”
In response to AFSCME’s request for a mediator, Sue Hofer, spokeswoman for the state Department of Central Management Services, said, “We look forward to moving negotiations forward.” CMS oversees contract negotiations.
The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service is available to unions and employers locked in contract disputes, whether the employer is in private business or a government. On its Web site, the agency says about 85 percent of mediated contract disputes have resulted in agreements.
“However, they (the mediators) have no authority to impose settlements,” the site says. “Their only tool is the power of persuasion.”
If need be, Bayer said, the terms of the current contract could be extended beyond the initial mediation session.
“We could agree to a further extension at that point,” he said. “We didn’t want to lock ourselves into a place where they could just not take this seriously.”
AFSCME employees have never gone on strike over a state contract. The union has not ruled out that possibility, but Lindall said the focus now is to reach a fair settlement with the help of a mediator. State law prohibits security staff in the Departments of Corrections and Juvenile Justice from going on strike.
Bayer said there was “some movement” in talks this week after an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 AFSCME members from around the state descended on Springfield on Monday to protest what they feel is an unfair contract offer from the state.
“They are no longer asking for a pension increase,” Bayer said of the state’s previous demand that employees contribute more to their pensions.
Hofer, in keeping with the state’s approach throughout the dispute, said, “I’m not going to talk about ongoing contract negotiations.”
According to the union, the state is still demanding significant increases in employee health insurance premiums and co-payments. Bayer said the premium increases amount to 50 percent across the board. At the same time, limited pay raises are being offered, he said.
“It would leave people 15 percent behind where they are today after four years,” Bayer said of the combined effects of higher health-care costs, minimal pay raises and inflation.
All state employees pay the same amount for their health insurance, making the outcome of the contract talks significant beyond the workers represented by AFSCME. A report from the General Assembly’s Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability says nearly 347,000 people are covered by the state’s group health insurance program, including workers, family members and retirees.
COGFA estimates the health program’s liabilities in the budget year that starts July 1 will be slightly more than $2 billion. In the current budget, employees will pay about $225 million for themselves and dependents to be covered by state health insurance, according to COGFA.
Doug Finke can be reached at (217) 788-1527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.