MOUNT DESERT — The union representing the town’s public works employees has filed a complaint with the Maine Labor Relations Board (MLRB) accusing the town of negotiating in bad faith. The move comes as the town seeks to break a collective bargaining stalemate through arbitration.
The Teamsters union represents 14 highway and sewer department employees. Their old three-year employment contract expired July 1, 2014. The two sides have been unable to reach an agreement on a new one.
The union proposed a 3 percent wage increase for each of the next three years and asked that the 3 percent boost be retroactive to the end of the last contract. To support its position, the union cited increases in the national Consumer Price Index, which it said slightly outpaced the employees’ salary increases over the past four years. The union said employees lost an average of $8.11 a year in buying power during that period.
The town proposed a wage hike of 1 percent for the first two years of a new contract and 1.5 percent for the third year, with no retroactive increase in pay.
This spring, the two parties took their dispute to a three-member MLRB fact-finding panel. On May 15, the employer representative on the panel and the neutral chairman recommended that Mount Desert’s unionized public works employees receive a 2 percent wage hike in each of the next three years. Instead of endorsing the union’s request that the wage hike be retroactive to last summer, the two fact finders recommended that employees receive a one-time $750 bonus.
In a minority report, the employee representative on the panel endorsed the union’s call for a 3 percent wage hike for each year of the contract and for that increase to be retroactive to July 1, 2014.
All three members of the fact-finding panel agreed on a recommendation for resolving the disagreement over health insurance costs.
The town has been paying 100 of insurance costs, but has proposed switching to a different plan that has higher deductibles and co-pays.
The town would establish and fund a health reimbursement account (HRA) that would cover employees’ out-of-pocket costs for the plan’s higher deductibles. But employees would be responsible for co-pays.
The union’s position is that the town should pay the full cost of health coverage. The MLRB fact-finding panel agreed.
“The town will realize significant savings by moving to the (new plan) … significant enough to fund the HRA, leave the employees no worse off than before and also to fund general pay increases,” the panel stated.
Joe Piccone, business agent for the Teamsters union in Maine, said Mount Desert’s public works employees were willing to accept the recommendations or the panel’s majority, even though the salary recommendations fall short of the union’s request.
But town officials have not agreed to the fact-finding panel’s recommendations.
On July 15, the town notified the MLRB that it is submitting the dispute for arbitration. State law stipulates that decisions of arbitrators in such cases are binding, except when the disputes are over salaries, insurance or pensions. So, regardless of how the arbitration panel rules in the Mount Desert case, neither party has to accept the ruling.
“That highlights the system being broken,” Piccone said.
He said the town’s position amounts to bad faith bargaining. “It makes a mockery of the system,” he said.
Board of selectmen chairman John Macauley on Monday denied the town has bargained in bad faith.
“We’ve acted in good faith all along,” he said. “And as far as I know, Mr. Piccone hasn’t brought any of this up for a vote of his constituents. So, he’s been negotiating on his own, as far as I can determine.”
Piccone confirmed on Tuesday that the employees he represents have not voted on any contract proposal.
“We never reached a tentative agreement to vote on,” he said.
The town last year hired labor relations consultant Michael Wing of Harpswell to lead its negotiations with the union. The town paid Wing a total of $8,559 from June 2014 through June 2015, according to Treasurer Kathi Mahar.
In addition to alleging that the town has negotiated in bad faith, Piccone said that Wing at one point indicated the town was willing to pay “something like 100 percent” of health insurance costs, but that turned out not to be the case.
“They certainly could have misunderstood, but we never proposed to cover 100 percent of the cost; the market doesn’t do that now,” Selectman Dennis Shubert said Monday.
Piccone predicted that the arbitration panel will endorse the recommendations of the MLRB’s fact-finding panel and that the town will ignore them. Under state law, if the two sides cannot reach an agreement following arbitration, then the employer – in this case, the town – can impose a new contract with the conditions it proposed.