Steadfast Canal Corp members hold out and get fair contract
By SHERRY HALBROOK
PEF members at NYS Canal Corporation voted overwhelmingly in July to approve a 10-year contract. The agreement will go before the Canal Corp Board of Directors August 7 for its approval.
With 85 percent of the PEF unit’s members voting, the agreement was approved by a vote of 39-4. Negotiations began in 2012 and the new contract runs from July 1, 2012, to June 30, 2022.
When the negotiations began, Canal Corp, which is a public-benefit corporation, was a subsidiary of the NYS Thruway Authority, but by the time tentative agreement was reached this year, Canal Corp had been transferred in 2017 to the NY Power Authority.
The PEF Executive Board voted at its June meeting to send the tentative agreement to the members for ratification.
“This was a long contest in which our members were unified and refused to be stampeded into accepting harsh management demands. They held out until they received fair terms,” said PEF President Wayne Spence. “This contract team was tough and patient and our members’ working conditions are better for it.”
PEF associate counsel Debra Greenberg, who was chief negotiator for this contract, said “Despite the transition of four different PEF council leaders during these years, the contract team didn’t miss a beat. They were strong, patient and thought outside the box in making creative proposals in the face of management intransigence to achieve their goals.”
The contract provides for seven years of 2 percent across-the-board raises, preceded by zero raises in 2012, 2013 and 2014, which generally parallels the three years in which the state’s PS&T and other employee bargaining units received no raises. The Canal Corp agreement also provides a $1,000 ratification bonus, an increased hiring rate and a $2,400 “navigation season” stipend for the more than 25 percent of unit members who are available when off duty to respond to incidents on the canal. In addition, current members of the bargaining unit will receive $1,000 in exchange for the elimination of their EZ-Pass and Canal Pass benefits.
A major reason it took six years for PEF and Canal Corp to reach agreement was the agency’s demand in 2013 that its employees, many of whom had not been paying for their health insurance, immediately begin picking up 16 percent of the premium cost for individual insurance coverage and 31 percent for family coverage by 2014, before any salary increases would go into effect and resulting in the employees experiencing a net loss for the first years of the contract.
PEF and the three other unions representing Canal Corp employees refused to agree to the shift in health insurance costs, and in 2014 management threatened to layoff workers. The unions dug in their heels, and management retaliated with layoffs. Fortunately, the effect on PEF’s unit was minimal.
This dispute over health insurance costs led both sides to adopt long-term bargaining strategies and try to out-wait one another.
Eventually, management agreed to smaller employee health insurance contributions phased in over time, as well as several compensation-related union proposals.
This year, employees hired before 2005 will start paying 7 percent of premium cost for individual coverage and 9 percent for family coverage, but not until their pay boosts add up to` at least 8 percent salary increases. The target rates of 10 percent for individual and 25 percent for family coverage will be phased in gradually and not fully effective until the final contract year.
Employees hired after 2005 already pay percent for individual and 25 percent for family coverage, and will see no increases in their contribution rates.
Employees hired after ratification will pay 16 percent for individual and 31 percent for family coverage. The increased hiring rate is intended to help offset the higher health insurance costs for this group.
PEF also negotiated a productivity enhancement plan that allows employees in salary grades up to grade 24 to trade in accrued vacation and personal days to off-set $600 or $1,200 of their health insurance contributions.
“There were times when negotiations were very difficult, very vocal and full of tension,” PEF Division 504 Council Leader Robert Bailey told the PEF Executive Board. “The negotiations were very trying because of our small numbers. Corporation management expected us to follow and mirror the agreements of other (bargaining units). But because of the specialized nature of the work that this unit does to serve the public riding the canal ways of the state, we made headway in what will benefit the corporation and members of Division 504 in years to come.”
Bailey said the prolonged negotiations took a toll on both PEF members on the contract team and those who were not on it. “Fellow members within those years could not see the end to this long battle and some decided to retire. Some (team) members who worked side-by-side with me during these tough (negotiating) sessions decided they could no longer continue with the team.”
Janet DeOrdio served the entire six years on this team and also was a member of the PEF team that negotiated the previous contract with Canal Corp.
The previous negotiations were accomplished faster and were “much easier,” DeOrdio said. She felt that a change who led negotiations for Canal Corp was a major factor in how long it took to resolve their differences.
“They wanted us to accept those health insurance costs when they weren’t offering any raises for those years. There’s no way anybody in our unit would have voted for that,” DeOrdio said.
“I’m at the top of my pay grade as a lot of us are and we had no raises for those six years. It was hard to see everybody else get raises or at least annual step increases. Members who are approaching retirement want to see their pay go up to boost their final average salary and pension.“
The contract now provides for three contract years of retroactive pay as well as raises in the current and future contract years.
DeOrdio said she worked in the private sector before taking a union job with the state.
“It’s security,” she said. ”We have that protection (from being fired without just cause or due process). Even if we have to start paying something for our health insurance now, at least we have health insurance. Not everyone has these things. “
Bailey said Canal Corp has found it difficult to recruit new employees fast enough to keep up with attritions. And the contract team felt it was important to get improved hiring pay and other contract provisions to make the agency more competitive in hiring young engineering graduates coming out of college with significant student debt.
And, in fact, the PEF division has already grown by more than 10 positions this summer.
“The notable gains that are agreed to are monetary, of course, but others are stepping stones where the (PEF) division will gain membership in new positions and avoid an increasing threat of subbing out work to contractors,” Bailey said.
Michael Wozniak, who joined to team in 2017, said he, too, wanted to look out for new hires at the agency and he was surprised to find management “jumped all over it” when PEF called for raising the hiring rate.
“I have two daughters out of college and in the workforce now,” Wozniak said, adding that the lack of paid health insurance and job security they are encountering in the private sector reminds him of why he took a $13,000 annual pay cut to leave a private construction job and go to work for the state 28 years ago.
In the private sector, Wozniak recalled, “Every year at the Christmas party they handed out pink slips. We were laid off until the next construction season began. I took the pay cut because I needed that security of organized labor, rather than just fending for myself. For me, personally, it’s more than just the raises. It is the security.
“A lot of people look at the union as protection from discipline. But the union is more than that. We have paid vacation and sick leave. That’s huge. My daughter just got two weeks of paid vacation (for the first time) after working five years (at her private-sector job),” Wozniak added.
Wozniak, who lives near Buffalo and had to drive to Albany for negotiations, said it was frustrating to make that long trip after work and then have management walk away from the table at noon the next day.
Nevertheless, he said he is glad to be part of the union and have a chance to take part in the bargaining. “I enjoyed the experience, and I’m satisfied we did our best.”
“These members are really committed to the work they do at Canal Corp,” said PEF field representative Caitlin Janiszewski, who represents Canal Corp members and was part of the PEF contract team. “Their work ethic is incredible. I feel honored to represent them.”