July 8, 2013

MSEA board to consider compromise contract

Union touts twin, 1 percent pay hikes; governor lauds trimming of union activity, telephone perks under deal

By Michael Shepherd mshepherd@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA — After wrangling with Gov. Paul LePage for more than two years to negotiate a new contract, Maine's primary state employees union is reviewing a tentative compromise hammered out last week that includes two wage increases in the next year.

Tim Belcher, lead counsel for the Maine State Employees Association, said after a contract is negotiated with the state, the union's board of directors must review it.

Then the union prepares summary sheets and schedules informational meetings with members, who have to ratify it in an election, which he said could take place by July's end.

The end of negotiations is a long time coming, having started in 2011, the year the last contract expired.

Since then, the administration and union have been locked in a number of conflicts surrounding negotiations and other labor issues. Already, both sides have claimed victories in the new contract, finalization of which the governor's office announced Wednesday.

The union touted two 1 percent wage increases for state workers taking effect in September 2013 and July 2014 — the first increases in more than four years for those workers. The deal affirms that state workers will see merit pay increases that the Legislature funded in the state's new two-year budget, which took effect July 1.

"The money they put on the table is not nearly enough for our employees, but it's progress," Belcher said.

But the LePage administration said it eliminated waste contained in previous deals, such as in certain phone allowances and state-paid leave for workers to attend annual union conventions and board of directors meetings.

Cynthia Montgomery, chief counsel with the state's Office of Employee Relations, which handled negotiations for the administration, said in older contracts some state employees received state allowances to have landlines at their homes to be used if they had to be contacted outside of work hours while also getting state-paid cellphones.

Now, she said, only employees who live in rural areas with subpar cellphone service will receive allowances.

Also, the state won't pay employees to attend annual union conventions and will pay employees to go to only four union board of directors meetings per year, down from 12 in the last contract. Montgomery said that could save the state approximately $45,000 annually.

"I think we did a better job at being stewards of taxpayers' money," she said.

Belcher said the union agreed easily to the phone provisions, but the meeting changes were more difficult.

Negotiations over the contract were rancorous, with the union filing four complaints with the Maine Labor Relations Board against the administration over the bargaining process, including allegations that it wasn't bargaining in good faith.

Belcher said the union agreed to drop the three active complaints once the contract is ratified.

In 2011, the MSEA filed a complaint against LePage's administration, saying it violated Maine law by hiring private contractors to do employees' work after the last contract expired that year. However, the Maine Labor Relations Board rejected it, and the union pulled it in May of this year.

The governor's office was also criticized in 2011 for using Louis DiLorenzo, a prominent labor attorney based in New York City, early in negotiations. At the time, the union said it was entering bargaining talks from a defensive position, looking to protect existing wages and benefits.

It did better than that. The contract clears the way for merit-pay increases for one year after a five-year freeze.

The Legislature put $7.6 million in the state's two-year budget to do that and protect longevity pay that LePage proposed to eliminate.

Under the budget, workers currently receiving longevity pay — an hourly wage increase that starts at 15 years of service — will continue to get what they're getting currently. Employees newly hitting the 15-year threshold won't get it.

(Continued on page 2)

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