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County strike vote expected

Non-court workers union says no to latest offer

WILKES-BARRE – The union that represents all non-court and non-court-related employees at the Luzerne County Courthouse is expected by the end of the week to vote on whether to strike, given union members’ rejection of the county’s latest contract offer on Monday.

Members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1398 voted 104-92 to reject a five-year contract that would have carried them through the end of 2013, said union president Paula Schnelly.

“(Monday), they were only voting on one change (from the previous contract offer). That change was in the health-care area,” Schnelly said.

In its first contract proposal, which the union rejected on July 2 by a 90-61 vote, employees would contribute nothing toward their health-care insurance premiums this year and next year, and then would contribute 10 percent of the premium cost in 2011 through 2013.

The only difference in the latest offer is that employees would contribute nothing this year; a flat rate of $30 per month for single person coverage or $75 per month for family coverage in 2010 and 2011, and 10 percent of the premium cost in 2012 and 2013, Schnelly said.

The salary increases that county officials offered were $1,000 for 2009, $1,000 for 2010 and 3 percent in each of the remaining years.

Luzerne County Commissioner Stephen A. Urban said earlier this month that the administration didn’t plan to renegotiate the contract after the union’s initial rejection. But county Chief Clerk/Manager Doug Pape said on Monday that the county decided to make a “subtle change” in the health-care benefits language, calling it “a bit of a concession on the county’s part.”

Schnelly said the only employees who would take home more money after the raises would have been those with single-person health insurance. Those with family coverage would take home less money after the raises than they are currently receiving.

Those calculations are based on the employees’ average salary of $24,303, she said.

Still, given the county’s concession, Schnelly was surprised by the outcome of the vote.

“I didn’t anticipate losing by 12 votes. This is most disheartening,” Schnelly said.

“But I also feel that if the other 100-plus members came out to vote, the outcome could have been different. And I don’t know why they didn’t come out to vote. But those who did come out to vote have spoken and we’ll take it from there,” she said.

The 298 members in this unit of AFSCME, which represents three segments of county workers, includes clerks, secretaries, phone operators, data entry staff and maintenance workers in non-court departments, road and bridge workers, building and grounds, workers and employees in the offices of Tax Claim, Assessor and Treasurer – the majority of county offices, Schnelly said.

Schnelly said she expects a vote for a strike will take place by the end of the week, but she is awaiting final word from David Antle, director of District Council 87, which represents all AFSCME locals in this area.

The only alternative to a strike is for the union members to continue working under the old contract, which expired Dec. 31. It would mean no raises for employees, but it would also mean employees would not have to contribute toward their health-care insurance premiums, Schnelly said.

“There is no going back to the (bargaining) table. (The administration) didn’t have to go back to the table last time, but we were able to convince them to make a change to the offer. … So I don’t see us going anywhere except to a strike vote,” Schnelly said.

Pape said he thought it was a good sign that more union members came out to vote Monday than did on July 2, but he was disheartened by talk of a possible strike. He said he believes the county’s offer was fair.

“If they decide to strike, there are two things they need to realize. One, that’s the end of their health-care, and two, that’s the end of their paychecks. It just seems unfathomable that someone would consider going on strike in this economic climate. … It boggles the mind when so many people are unemployed and want to work, these people are contemplating going on strike,” Pape said.

Pape said it “could save the county a few bucks” in raises in 2009 if the employees decided to continue working under the old contract.

WHAT’S NEXT

AFSCME Local 1398 is expected to schedule a vote on whether to strike by the end of this week.

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