November 30, 2011

Workers Vote Down Agreement Reached by TCAT, Union Leaders

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Efforts to end a dispute over new contracts for TCAT bus drivers hit another roadblock Wednesday when workers voted down the latest contract agreement between their union and TCAT management.

In the aftermath of the vote, which came after more than three months of negotiations, both TCAT management and union leadership released statements blaming the other for failing to reach an agreement that workers would approve.

TCAT management presented the proposal Monday to the drivers’ union, United Auto Workers Local 2300. According to Hank Dullea, chair of TCAT’s board of directors, mediation lasted for nine hours Monday, resulting in the UAW taking the proposed contract to its membership.

“The TCAT Board of Directors regrets the decision today by the UAW membership to once again reject the terms of a negotiated, three-year contract,” a TCAT press release stated.

Both sides acknowledged the challenge of striking a balance between increasing wages and maintaining generous health benefits. TCAT emphasized that budget constraints require all employees — both agement and unionized workers — to make compromises.

Dullea said that union leadership and TCAT management presented a “dual option” arrangement to their membership, in which individual employees would choose to enroll in one of two healthcare plans. For workers who opted for the cheaper plan, TCAT would make remaining funds available for wage increases.

“If people are choosing [the more expensive] plan, the premiums in that plan — to both TCAT and to the individual — will be higher than if the person chooses [the cheaper plan],” Dullea said. “Therefore there is less money available for wage adjustments.”

In a press release Wednesday, the UAW condemned TCAT management for rejecting the union’s proposed “me too” clause. The clause, according to the statement, would have required union members to receive wage increases if management also received wage increases.

“I am appalled that while the members are willing to make significant concessions, management is not showing a similar sense of fairness,” UAW President Jack Kaminsky stated in the press release. “They are making it very clear that UAW members employed at TCAT are welcome to ‘share the pain’ but not so welcome when it comes to ‘sharing the gains.’”

TCAT’s Wednesday statement countered that the “me too” clause is unreasonable because it requires every unionized worker to receive the same compensation regardless of the rationale behind wage increases for specific individuals.

TCAT, operating under a projected $306,000 deficit this year, cannot sustain the more generous health plan and increased wages proposed by UAW, according to TCAT’s Wednesday statement.

TCAT also faces a deficit of more than $500,000 in 2012, Dullea said, even when considering a proposed rural fare increase and service reduction. The TCAT Board of Directors will vote on the changes Thursday.

The press release stated TCAT’s financial woes have been compounded by cuts in New York State funding over the last three years and the inability of TCAT’s three local sponsors — Tompkins County, the City of Ithaca and the University — to increase their contributions.

Andrew Gallegos, TCAT driver, said the drivers are not satisfied by TCAT’s explanation the organization does not have enough money.

“If you look around, the price of healthcare has gone through the roof, and we’re trying to pay for it with what we have,” Gallegos said. “That’s one of the problems we’re trying to negotiate.”

According to Dullea, TCAT must choose a health insurance provider for its employees by Thursday.

“TCAT has already been given several extensions, and the union knows that,” Dullea said Wednesday night. “Tomorrow is the absolute last day.”

If no agreement is reached, Dullea said, TCAT General Manager Joe Turcotte will have to decide on a health insurance plan for employees Thursday. Turcotte could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Patty Poist, TCAT communications and marketing manager, said there has not been any manifestation of discontent since the Nov. 10 sickout, when one third of TCAT bus operators called in sick to work in protest of protracted contract negotiations.

Poist said TCAT management did not hear anything from the union about the possibility of a strike or other job action.

“We’ve had some concerns in Facebook messages from people who are concerned about what would happen in that event,” Poist said. “We haven’t heard that there’s any plan of [a strike] but that’s obviously on our passengers’ minds and on our minds as well.”

Original Author: Rebecca Harris