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County, Unions ratify contract, avoid strike

October 22, 2011

County, unions ratify contract, avoid strife

By BEN MCCARTY

News staff writer

In a full day of mediation last month Hood River County and its two largest employees unions agreed on a contract.

In normal times, a contract agreement is not big news. But these are not normal times. The agreement ended a process that saw months of acrimonious negations, the county implementing its final offer on the union and the unions threatening to strike.

After the county and Locals 2503 and 1082 went to the brink, they went back to the table for one last-ditch mediation effort, and it worked.

Now they are ready to leave the bad blood behind and work toward a more peaceful process the next time around.

The final contract agreed upon by both sides modifies the health care insurance split for this year to 85/15 between the county and employees before shifting to 80/20 next year, reinstates seniority with bumping rights within department only and adds a year to the contract. All unfair labor practice and civil filings related to the previously implemented contract were dropped.

"We think this is a very good thing," said Jaime Sorenson. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 75 staff representative. "Now we hope to start a new chapter."

In April the county opted to implement contracts for both the 1082, which represents employees in the Finance, Building, Juvenile, Health, Planning, Assessment and Records, District Attorney's Office, Elections, Justice Court and County Administration office, and the 2503, which represents Forestry and Public Works.

The 1082 contract proved particularly contentious, as it removed seniority-based layoffs and did not guarantee any minimum work hours.

The unions also took issue with the county retroactively increasing health insurance payments from employees to the start of the contract.

In June the 1082 membership authorized a strike.

Soon after that, both sides quietly agreed to give mediation one last chance, and brought in state Employee Relations Board mediator Bob Nightingale for a full day of talks.

"The parties realized that this was not a good course of action," said Hood River County Administrator David Meriwether. "We all agreed to sit down and give it one last shot and we were able to reach an agreement."

They came off the negotiation with a framework in place, which was sent to lawyers on both sides and then ratified by the union and then the Hood River County Commission at its meeting earlier this week.

The final agreement wound up with a compromise agreement on both sides regarding the health insurance issue. In exchange for the county dropping the percentage that employees are required to pay-in this year and only having increase in the final two years of the contract, the unions agreed to drop their claims for retroactive compensation.

"The health insurance was a big thing," Meriwether said. "We gave up some this year and they gave up getting back last year. I appreciate their efforts to meet us halfway."

The county also agreed to return to the minimum work hours language from the 2010 contract with the 1082, which was set 8 hours per day, with 40 work hours per week.

Sorensen said the agreement will ultimately benefit both sides and set the table for negotiations in 2013, when the contract expires.

"We wanted more stable relations," she said. "No one wanted to be living under those contentious conditions."

This past year has been a difficult one for local governments in Oregon, which have shed 8,000 jobs in the last year according to Oregon Employment Department, and Meriwether said that the contentious negotiations prior to the agreement were an unfortunate side affect.

"This was a take-back contract; there is no question," he said of the trimming of benefits. "It's an unfortunate reality."

Both sides agreed to add an extra year to the agreement, to both avoid having to begin negotiating early next year and to give the chance for the economy to improve.

With a framework in place for future negotiations, the county and the unions are hopeful the next round of negotiations will be more amicable than this go-round.

As a show of good will the unions and the county will have a signing ceremony Monday at 4:30 p.m. in the county administration building with the county commission and union members.

"The hope is that we can walk in with a clean slate and try to get back to more normalized labor negotiations," Sorenson said. "I think it's in everybody's best interest."

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