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Sununu, unions at standstill on raises

New Hampshire Union Leader

April 30. 2017 1:29AM

CONCORD - Gov. Chris Sununu has taken a hard line against any pay raises in new collective bargaining for five unions that represent more than 13,000 state workers.

And when one union left the table in disgust and declared an impasse in early March, Sununu's negotiators ended salary talks with the other four, a sharp departure from past practice.

As a result, all negotiations on salary and benefits remain at a standstill with only two months before these contracts run out.

"It is really unprecedented that because they are at impasse with one group, they aren't negotiating with us," said Rich Gulla, president of the State Employees Association, the largest union.

Seifu Ragassa is vice president of the New England Police Benevolent Association local, which represents the probation and parole officers and the chief probation officers.

"We are bitterly disappointed that the state has basically come to the bargaining table empty-handed, offering nothing to the hard-working state employees and they have the audacity to call it negotiation," Ragassa said during a telephone interview.

"We have attempted numerous times to get the state to engage with us and they have just been totally non-responsive."

Matt Newland, state manager of employee relations, said while it's not always been done this way, state law proscribes that all negotiations are to take place with all unions at the same time.

"We remain committed to working in good faith to reach a contract agreement that is fair for employees and the taxpayers of New Hampshire," Newland said. "The state is simply following the law. The law essentially states the unions speak with one voice on cost items."

The current scorecard is that three unions are at impasse: the Teamsters that negotiate on behalf of the state correctional officers and the New Hampshire Troopers Association, which has two units, one for state troopers and another for the unionized command staff.

"We were really surprised at the tack taken by the governor's negotiating team," said Troopers Association President Marc Beaudoin.

"The state has always kept the lines of communication open with other unions even if one of the other members are at impasse. So once they said they wouldn't negotiate with us on cost items, we too went to impasse."

A dispute goes to mediator

Last week, state negotiators and the Teamsters agreed to the hiring of economist Allen McCausland to serve as a mediator to try and resolve the dispute, a role he's played in past state-union bargaining matters.

Meanwhile, the other two unions, the SEA and the NEPBA, filed unfair labor practice charges against Sununu's negotiators over this policy of refusing to negotiate over cost items.

Both sides agreed to have this matter settled without a public hearing, instead legal briefs will be filed over whether the Sununu team's approach amounts to a violation of state law or not.

The Public Employee Labor Relations Board last week announced a time frame to resolve this with both sides having to respond to the other's arguments by May 10.

"Rather than fix the situation, the state is pointing fingers and trying to paint a picture of chaos. Gov. Sununu's spokesperson gave an alternate version of the facts when he stated, 'The unions are arguing with themselves ... our team never left the bargaining table,'" SEA President Gulla said.

"This could not be further from the truth. In reality, all unions are supportive of each other in their efforts to negotiate with the state for the unique needs of their membership."

According to union officials, Sununu's negotiating team said they opposed any pay raises for state workers in part because the unions have received five increases totaling 10 percent since November 2013 (see "State wage hike history" chart).

Union leaders counter these increases came after four much leaner years during the recession when one state budget required $50 million in wage and benefit cuts and then the next budget contained another two-year freeze on wages.

In turn, Sununu's team has said unlike the last several contracts, state government is not asking for any changes to the employee health care plan.

Legislative leaders confirmed that Sununu's proposed two-year budget set aside $31.5 million in state dollars to cover increased costs of the benefits package and the full cost of the last pay raise that took effect in January 2016.

State union officials acknowledged the benefits plan (see "State worker health insurance benefits" chart) is a competitive one even when compared to other state governments.

They've said it's because wages for state employees in New Hampshire on average have been lower than peers in neighboring states.

Law cites joint talks

The collective bargaining law does spell out joint negotiations on salary matters.

"All cost items and terms and conditions of employment affecting state employees in the classified system generally shall be negotiated by the state, represented by the governor as chief executive, with a single employee bargaining committee comprised of exclusive representatives of all interested bargaining units," states RSA 273-A:9

In 2014, former SEA President Diana Lacey opposed a bill (SB 398) to change that law and require all local unions bargain for wages "individually and separately."

"I dare say that having the State have to meet with four different tables to do the master level work is going to be incredibly difficult to manage, and I don't think that brings us to success," Lacey testified.

The Senate killed that measure.

Despite the strict language of the law, veteran negotiators for the state and labor unions say for more than two decades the governor's team has kept negotiating with unions as long as they remained at the table, even if talks had broken off with other locals.

"It is factually correct that he's not doing it as many have done, but each governor is able to bargain in a way which makes sense for them," said another, longtime state negotiator who asked not to be identified.

Trooper President Beaudoin said it's in Sununu's best interest to try and reach agreement with some unions. "Even when it comes to cost items, each union can have their own unique circumstances and demands," Beaudoin said.

It's worth noting only one of these five unions endorsed Sununu's 2016 bid for governor: the NEPBA, representing probation officials.

The national, Service Employees International Union, of which SEA is a member local, spent through its Put New Hampshire First PAC $4.4 million on paid ads, direct mail and door-to-door canvassing, all on Democratic nominee for governor Colin Van Ostern's behalf. That's more than twice as much as Sununu's campaign raised on its own behalf.

State negotiator Newland stressed despite the wage standstill, talks are ongoing on noncost items especially with the SEA subunits that each represent large state agencies.

"We have continued to bargain on terms and conditions of employment that are unique to the SEA," Newland said.

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