By JAIME STUDD
For the Express
JOHNSTOWN — Members of the Fulton County Board of Supervisors arriving last Monday to conduct their regular monthly meeting were greeted by a picket line formed by county workers protesting a contract agreement that is now 2.5 years overdue.
With both voice and written word, the demonstrators made their wishes known: “Contract now.”
Nearly 300 members of the Civil Service Employees Association Local 818 General Unit have been working without a new contract since 2009, and despite repeated attempts by the county and the unit’s negotiating teams to find some middle ground, negotiations have proven futile.
Upon the start of the meeting, the demonstrators’ demands moved indoors, where several members took advantage of the public comment portion to address the supervisors.
“I’m wondering how much longer we’re expected to work without a new contract,” asked Barbara Handy, a former CSEA unit president.
Handy described the recent privatization of the county’s Residential Health Care Facility as a “nightmare.”
“With one swipe or your pen, you wiped out half your employees,” Handy said.
Noting a substantial raise given to Board of Supervisors Administrative Officer Jon Stead in 2010, Handy also rebutted the supervisors’ claim that the county’s precarious financial situation prevents them from offering the union employees raises in a new contract, a condition that has been repeatedly cited as a sticking point in the negotiations.
“There’s money to be spent, but only as you see fit,” said Handy. “All we’ve asked for is a meager raise to offset the cost of living.
“No wage increase for three years is unjust and unfair,” she added.
Handy said she blamed the county for the fact that a new contract has yet to be agreed upon.
“The employees have given in repeatedly,” said Handy. “Items that cost little or no money are not even being considered.”
Those sentiments were echoed by Joe Maher, a member of the general unit’s negotiating team.
“Every time the county comes back with a new proposal, it’s worse than the previous one,” said Maher. “I feel like we’re not being respected, not being appreciated and we’re not being fairly compensated.”
Though negotiations with the local 818’s general unit continue, the county did reach an agreement with the union’s nurses unit, ending its own years-long battle for a new contract.
A late resolution, passed unanimously on Monday, ratified the terms of a new five-year contract for the six-member nurses unit that freezes their wages at the 2009 rate for 2010, 2011 and 2012, but allows for a 1.5 percent increase in 2013 and a 2 percent increase in 2014.
That contract also calls for the nurses to pay 20 percent of their health insurance for individual coverage and 50 percent for family/dependent coverage.
The nurses will also receive $400 if they do not use any sick time over the course of the year.
Broadalbin Town Supervisor Joe DiGiacomo, a member of the board’s personnel committee, said he believes the county’s last offer to the general unit was “fairly similar” to that just agreed upon with the nurses unit and he blamed a general lack of understanding on the part of the general unit with regard to the county’s financial predicament as one of the impediments to ratifying a new contract.
“The nurses were real professional in the way they negotiated. They understood the county’s position. They understood the fiscal situation the county’s in,” said DiGiacomo. “I’m not sure the general unit is in tune enough to know what the county’s fiscal position is right now.
“The nurses unit is a very small unit, too, so it’s easier to make everybody understand the same situation,” he added.
Board of Supervisors Chairman Michael Gendron also credited the nursing union’s negotiating practices as crucial to the two parties having reached and agreement.
“The nurses were very professional in their negotiations. It was fairly negotiated and we got a lot of cooperation,” said Gendron. “The increases in health and retirement were raises and the nurses understood that.”
“Every negotiating team is different,” he added.
Gendron said he still holds out hope that the two sides can reach an agreement.
“I’m always optimistic,” said Gendron. “We’re seeking to represent the county as best we can.”
“I don’t know what they’re looking for,” DiGiacomo said of the general unit. “My own opinion is they’re probably looking for something retroactive where we didn’t offer anything retroactive to the nurses unit. I don’t know that, but that’s my feeling I get from talking to a couple of the union members.”