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Planning for Contract Negotiations

Local officials meet with a labor expert to talk about how to deal with upcoming labor negotiations.

Leaders from several Connecticut River towns, including Haddam, East Haddam, Portland, Deep River and Durham, met today to talk about how to deal with upcoming contract negotiations in their respective towns.

The municipal officials took part in the regular meeting of the Connecticut River Valley Council of Elected Officials and heard a presentation by labor lawyer Gabriel J. Jiran, of the Hartford law firm Shipman & Goodwin, LLP.

In his presentation to the approximately 20 officials who attended the meeting, Jiran outlined several ways in which towns could save money in upcoming contracts with municipal employee unions, including early retirement options, increased health insurance co-payments for workers, furloughs, reduced work hours for some employees and regionalizing some union contracts with other towns.

Other options, he said, could include cutting worker salaries, eliminating some paid holidays and contracting with outside sources for some municipal services.

All of those options, he said, have positive and negative ramifications for towns. For instance, regionalizing some contracts is tricky and tough to get unions to agree on.

“Unions are reluctant because of unknowns and they’re generally happy with their contracts.”

Cutting wages is also unpopular, but cutting workers’ hours at least gives them time off in exchange for reduced pay.

“Even though they’re pay is going down, they’re getting something back for it.”

Many municipal and public school employee union contracts are renewing this year at a time when town leaders are grappling with either reduced or stagnant local revenues and are worried about balancing their budgets without steep tax increases.

That same issue has seen controversy in other states, such as Wisconsin and Ohio, where governors have either sought significant union concessions or want to limit the power of public employee unions.

If bargaining units here can’t be persuaded on concessions, Jiran said, town leaders might have to look at reducing the services they provide or tell union leaders that layoffs will result.

“It deserves mention at times to say ‘How are we going to pay for this?’ Sometimes we have to say to the union ‘If you want a 3 percent increase we’re telling you we can’t afford it.’ ”

Some of the town leaders expressed frustration with the process called “binding arbitration,” which the state mandates when local contract negotiations become deadlocked.

Arbiters, said Old Saybrook First Selectman Michael Pace “give away the candy store. It’s just a Merry-go-Round” that inflates contracts year after year, he said. Arbiters, he added, look at things like annual grand list increases in towns to determine their ability to pay salaries and benefits for workers, and not more realistic indicators.

“It’s not based on the taxpayers’ ability to pay,” he said. “The grand list is meaningless when people are getting laid off.”

Portland First Selectwoman Susan Bransfield said threats like layoffs and service reductions is not an option for many towns, where cuts have been going on for years in an effort to balance budgets.

“We need to run a town and that tactic is not available to us anymore,” Bransfield said. “We’ve cut and cut and running the town is getting to be difficult with one person in a department. Statutorily, you have to have certain functions.”

Fran Cracker March 24, 2011 at 12:43 PM
It is interesting to see how all savings to the Taxpayer are being laid at the feet of the unionized workers. These workers are the ones who have already gone without raises and are already paying more for their insurance. They are also the lowest paid employees. No where in this article did I see the Attorney speak about the savings that could be realized if the Town cars, with Town paid insurance and Town paid gas were taken off the road. No where is it mentioned that the Selectmen and their heads of departments should take a salary cut and give up meetings that include Town paid breakfast or Town paid lunches. How about eliminating the 2 or 3 day conferences for the heads of departments. These are paid by the Town and amount to hundreds of dollars each year. This information can be delivered via e-mail. How about the Selectmen negotiate the contracts themselves instead of paying high priced Attorneys to do it for them. In most cases the Attorney gets more to negotiate than what it would cost the Town to give small raises to the employees. If the union members must bite the bullet than everyone else should have to bite the bullet also. First Selectwoman Susan Bransfield told it just the way it is. The lowest paid workers in the Towns have already given until it hurts.
Dave D March 24, 2011 at 04:18 PM
Well put Fran, in the current economy everyone is feeling the pinch, and what would it hurt to cut out attorneys and make an initial offer?
Lynn Herlihy April 01, 2011 at 12:53 PM
It is an interesting point to cut out attorneys, but then the Union must negotiate without an attorney. I really don't know, is that being done? Also, please understand that the private sector pays for Public sector jobs. Small business owners no longer have health insurance benefits, any pay raises or minimal ones and no pensions. These people can no longer pay for luxuries for the public sector. Also, there are too many unemployed people right now, but many are in debt up to their ears, and too proud to ask for help. Ask some of your fellow townspeople who have no jobs or whose business is no longer making money. How do you pay for medical expenses, or gas or clothes or food?

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