New Ken water workers reject contract proposal from fact-finder
The more-than-five-year impasse between the New Kensington water authority board and its workers will continue because the union voted down a contract proposed by a neutral state fact-finder.
Ron C. Balla, president of the Utility Workers Union of American Local 220, which represents about 23 authority employees, said the union on Tuesday rejected the proposal offered by Thomas L. Hewitt, a fact-finder from the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board.
The five-member authority board unanimously approved the proposal on March 6, according to board Chairman Ron Zampogna.
“We weren't 100 percent pleased, but I guess nobody ever is,” Zampogna said. “We were hoping to get this settled, so we accepted it.”
The union continues to work under the terms of a contract that expired in November 2008.
Balla said the union took issue with some of the facts presented by the authority, which he believes led to skewed suggestions by Hewitt.
“We don't believe some of the evidence conveyed by the authority was completely factual,” Balla said.
He noted the fact-finder's report, issued March 3 and released to the public on Thursday, references a 2006 Valley News Dispatch investigation into the New Kensington authority's hiring practices and high wages and benefits compared to other authorities.
Balla said the union wasn't given a chance to rebut the inclusion of those stories because mention of them wasn't in the authority's preliminary report to the fact-finder. Balla said the union's national leadership wasn't given an opportunity to comment when the articles were printed.
Additionally, Balla said testimony given about bonuses for non-union managers wasn't accurate.
Balla said the union did appreciate some suggestions from the fact-finder that he believes are common sense improvements to work rules.
“At the end of the day, it's a nonbinding situation,” Balla said of fact-finding. “It was easy to enter into it to shake the tree a little bit. It wasn't everything I thought it was going to be. We can use a lot of it as a guideline at our next session.”
Zampogna said the authority board wasn't satisfied with all of the suggestions, but felt it was a fair compromise.
He said the board didn't like the suggestion of giving employees 20 hours of vacation pay in addition to their annual vacation time off.
But the board felt it was an improvement over the current contract that offers employees 13 weeks of vacation pay, minus actual vacation time used, once every five years.
“That went away for the steel mills in the 1970s,” he said. “We definitely were asking for some givebacks on things we thought, for 2014, were not in line with the times.”
Zampogna said the board had been asking for employees to pay 10 percent of their health insurance premiums, up from 5 percent. The fact-finder suggested 8 percent contributions.
Zampogna said the board could live with the suggested 2.5 percent annual raises, which is more than the 1.75 percent the board offered.
“We felt even though there was some things we didn't agree with, we were willing to accept it to have the union have a contract,” he said. “The board's a little disappointed that this isn't over.”
Zampogna said no negotiation sessions have been scheduled. Since a state mediator attends all bargaining meetings, Zampogna said it can take time to arrange the schedules of everyone involved.
“We believe we are somewhat closer in negotiating,” Balla said. “But we feel strongly that we will continue to fight for a fair agreement based on facts and evidence that support our position.”
Liz Hayes is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4680 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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