‘An important part of the context for our negotiations’

RELATED: Despite looming vote, some labor deals are up in the air

Staff report


Regardless of the outcome of the state Issue 2 ballot initiative, it’s

already had an impact on a number of public-employee contracts in the Mahoning Valley.

On Tuesday’s ballot, Issue 2 would either retain or repeal Senate Bill 5, a law passed by the state Legislature in April that restricts some collective-bargaining rights for public employees.

Since its passage, numerous employee unions in the area have approved contract extensions and renewals. The effort to repeal the law suspended its implementation.

“SB 5 was an important part of the context for our negotiations, as I’m sure it must have been for every public-sector union that has bargained a contract this year,” said Sherry Linkon, a spokeswoman for the Youngstown State University Chapter of the Ohio Education Association, which represents professors. “It made us more conscious of how our actions would be seen by the community.”

The union ratified a new three-year concessionary agreement in late September after protracted talks and a strike threat. The YSU trustees approved the contract on Oct. 26.

“I imagine that some of our members may have voted to accept the new contract because they were worried that if we voted it down, that would generate support for Issue 2,” Linkon said, “while others were concerned that if we didn’t settle in time, the bill could be upheld and the [YSU] board [of trustees] could impose whatever terms it wanted on us.”

Several employee unions in Youngstown approved contracts shortly after SB 5 passed. All of the contracts included freezes in base-pay salaries as well as no increases in perks such as longevity and uniform payments and education bonuses. The contracts kept the employee health-care contribution at 10 percent. If Issue 2 passes, the employee health-care contribution goes to 15 percent.

Steve Procick, president of the city’s water-department union, said in April, when the contract was approved, that there were “concerns over SB 5” by his membership, and the bill “changed the game a little bit,” providing a sense of urgency to get the contract approved.

“Absolutely, it made a difference,” said John Gulu, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 42 in Campbell, about SB 5’s impact on his union’s contract negotiations. “It made it more of a necessity to compromise with the city instead of fighting.”

In the Canfield school district, three unions approved contracts. The union members will see their health-insurance contributions increase from 8 percent this school year to 9 percent the next school year and then 10 percent in 2013-14.

Keith Moffo, president of the district’s Ohio Association of Public School Employees, which represents support staff, said a small portion of the union’s negotiations took Issue 2 into account. Passage of the district’s levy on Tuesday’s ballot was a more pressing matter, he said.

Union leaders who negotiated three-year contracts for workers at the Trumbull County Sheriff’s Office and county Job and Family Services office say State Issue 2 did create a sense of urgency to get their contract in place prior to Tuesday’s election.

Both unions approved new contracts last week.

Denise Stark, president of Local 458 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union, said workers at Job and Family Services didn’t want to be “sitting ducks” in the event that SB 5 goes into effect.

“Senate Bill 5 takes away all of our rights,” Stark said, adding that there is language in the bill that limits the amount of time allowed for contract negotiations that could affect pay and benefits more than most people realize.

“We did have the urgency to get under contract now for the fear of being out there with no contract in case it [Issue 2] does pass,” she said.

Randall Weltman, an attorney for the Ohio Patrolman’s Benevolent Association, which last week approved a three-year contract with the county covering 65 deputies and other workers at the Trumbull County Sheriff’s Office, said Issue 2 did motivate workers to get a contract in place now rather than wait.

But like Stark, Weltman said the two-year state budget approved this summer was the more important factor that affected the terms of the contract workers approved.

Workers at sheriff’s office accepted a two-year wage freeze in their contract and a reopener in 2013 on wages.

They will continue to pay 10 percent of their health-care premiums during the three years, which are retroactive to Jan. 1.

Sheriff’s employees and JFS employees agreed to allow random drug testing for the first time in this contract.

In Struthers, the International Association of Firefighters Local 1910 and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 759, Ohio Council 8, came to the city administration and council to get their contracts finalized.

Their contracts were set to expire Monday, the day before the election, said Mayor Terry Stocker. Council voted to accept both contracts Oct. 26.

“If Senate Bill 5 passes, their collective-bargaining agreements are in effect for three years,” Stocker said.

There are no raises or changes in health care in the contracts. Union members pay 7 percent toward health care, he said, and the city could not force them to pay 15 percent if Issue 2 passes until after the contract expires.

Stocker said he sees SB 5, which he doesn’t support, as “a double-edged sword.”

“It gives cities the ability to negotiate up to 15 percent” toward health benefits, Stocker said. “It’s a benefit to cities to offset costs of [state funding] cuts.”

At the same time, Stocker said, “Do we go after employees and make it harder on them?”

Youngstown Mayor Charles Sammarone, who also opposes SB 5, say the bill helped resolve contracts quickly with unions.

“I would think the unions would rather settle now rather than take a chance on SB 5,” he said. “That’s would I would do.”

If Issue 2 passes, “every public entity would save money,” Sammarone said.

But how much is uncertain.

“We don’t have the statewide information because it would require pulling every contract city by city and school district by school district,” said Connie Wehrkamp, a spokeswoman for Building a Better Ohio, the main group supporting Issue 2.

The legislation restricting some collective-bargaining rights was designed to help local governments and school districts save money by eliminating certain employee perks — such as longevity pay — as well as require employees to pay at least 15 percent of their health-care contributions and 10 percent of their pensions.

“Our communities have been dealing with financial problems, and SB 5 is part of a broader reform package,” Wehrkamp said. “Every dollar the government saves is a dollar taxpayers don’t have to spend. Hopefully, local governments will use the tools provided to save money and get costs under control. We’ve seen many cases how SB 5 is impacting contracts.”

In response, Melissa Fazekas, a spokeswoman for We Are Ohio, the main group opposing Issue 2, said, “Some local officials, mayors and school boards have said that the cuts they sustained from the state budget cannot be overcome by the ‘tools’ Issue 2 supporters claim are available from Senate Bill 5. The fact is, the same people who support Issue 2 also passed a state budget that cut funding for classrooms and local communities by more than $3 billion. It’s not only wrong to balance the budget on the backs of middle-class families, it’s also unlikely local communities could make up the lost vital state funding from Senate Bill 5.”

Contributors: Vindicator reporters David Skolnick, Denise Dick, Ed Runyan, Jeanne Starmack, Christine Keeling

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