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Meeting the New Boss

As is the custom when one wins public office or an Academy Award, this past New Year’s Day at the Buffalo-Niagara Convention Center the freshly inaugurated county executive, Mark Poloncarz, took the time for numerous thank-yous. “I believe I have some friends from organized labor in the house?” Poloncarz playfully intoned to the raucous delight of hundreds of members of various unions that lent financial, material, and shoe-leather support to his underdog campaign against the incumbent, Chris Collins.

A major player in Poloncarz’s labor support came was CSEA Local 815, which has some 3,500 members in county’s public services apparatus, most of whom became very disillusioned with the previous administration’s efforts to force layoffs and institute an illegitimate “regular part-time” status to skirt pay and benefits for new hires. Local 815 has been without a contract since 2006 and has been expecting Poloncarz to make good on an unspoken agreement to negotiate in good faith with the union for a better contract.

To no one’s surprise, however, Poloncarz has begun to cry poor. The Rath Building’s 16th-floor PR machine has been pumping out warnings of a bleak fiscal horizon tied mostly to the delicate issue of improvements to Ralph Wilson Stadium and the apparently enormous burden placed on the county by providing mandated medical treatment to the uninsured at ECMC, the same hospital that Collins erroneously claimed was off the county’s budget sheets in the heat of the campaign.

Those warnings have not been lost on CSEA members, who have grown more malcontent by the day over the contract stalemate. A recent union meeting at Hearthstone Manor almost ended in fisticuffs when a member foully accosted CSEA’s leadership for their purported incompetence in negotiating a new contract. When news broke that an agreement had been reached and CSEA would only release the terms at private meetings for members, disparaging and mocking placards critical of both Poloncarz and Local 815’s president, Joan Bender, were posted about county offices.

The terms of the five-year contract boil down to this: an 11 percent base wage increase over the life of the contract, a 15 percent employee contribution towards the healthcare plan, a $1,250 “signing bonus,” and a giveback of a week’s worth of paid time off in the form of summer hours, Columbus Day, and Election Day.

On the spectrum of municipal union contracts from “good ol’ days” to “Wisconsin slash and burn,” this one lands squarely in the middle with a “Eh, hmmm. Okay.”

But CSEA members, who currently pay nothing for their healthcare plans, are loath to be in the county’s position of being held hostage by exponentially rising healthcare costs. To that end, the new contract caps an employee’s annual contribution at $4,000, but that may not be enough to convince the rank and file, many of whom view the new contract proposal as less robust than the one offered by Collins in 2010, which also budgeted for 350 layoffs.

At a recent meeting, Bender allowed that the contract isn’t ideal, but given the economic and political climate, she said, “We don’t see things getting any better. The budget office has come to us twice to tell us how dire it is. Do I believe them? I don’t think I have the choice.”

Not quite what members wanted to hear after Collins’s departure. Every comment or question critical of the new contract and in favor of standing pat without a contract was met with vigorous applause. One member even inquired as to how CSEA insures that the votes are properly counted. When CSEA staff representative Bob Mueller answered a comment from one disappointed member, his answer of “I disagree we’re coming out on the losing end” was met with derisive chuckling.

“This is better than standing still,” he said. “Any time you can increase your base wage, you’re moving forward.”

If members ratify the contract though mail balloting this month, the contract will be headed to the legislature for approval.

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