Workers poised to strike

October 18, 2017

A strike by Lane County government’s largest employee union was imminent Wednesday, as county commissioners moved toward imposing their contract terms, and the union representing 692 workers prepared for public demonstrations in downtown Eugene.

The Lane County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday gave County Administrator Steve Mokrohisky authority to implement its contract terms on the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 2831 and the AFSCME nurses unit employees. The implementation would take effect Saturday but wouldn’t end negotiations toward a final contract the sides could reach.

The county and bargaining units were discussing proposals late Tuesday, but no new formal offers had been made, Lane County spokeswoman Devon Ashbridge said. She added that the two sides were prepared to talk through the night and into Wednesday morning.

Meanwhile, about 150 AFSCME members and supporters met Tuesday evening at First Christian Church in Eugene to prepare for the strike and sign up to picket outside Lane County offices starting at 6 a.m. Wednesday.

As the threatened walkout loomed, county department heads moved to put strike plans in place that would suspend numerous health programs, close community health centers, and cut operating hours at several county offices.

The AFSCME general and nurses units say they’ll strike Wednesday morning without wage and health care concessions from the administration. That could put nearly half of the county’s roughly 1,400 government employees on the picket line in what could be the first organized strike of county employees since more than 700 AFSCME-represented workers went on strike in 1979.

The two sides have been negotiating since March on a new three-year contract but are more than $20 million apart on employee compensation costs. Wages and employee health insurance contributions have been the main sticking points throughout.

The county has offered pay raises of about 3 percent on average in the contract’s first year. The county also wants employees to start paying $20 to $70 per month toward their health insurance coverage premiums; they currently pay nothing.

AFSCME wants far higher raises, averaging 14.8 percent for general unit employees in the contract’s first year and 19.8 percent for the smaller nurses unit. It rejects the county proposal to contribute to health insurance plans.

“This is letting the county know we need to be respected, we deserve to be respected and, darn it, we deserve a fair contract,” AFSCME Local 2831 President LaRece Rivera told supporters Tuesday evening.

Earlier in the day, at the public hearing portion of commissioners’ Tuesday meeting, Rivera showed commissioners a petition she said contained nearly 1,300 signatures urging the county to end the standoff with better terms for the employees.

“Do the right thing and keep Lane County open and working,” Rivera said.

But commissioners voted 3-1 Tuesday to move toward implementing its offers for the general and nurses units. South Eugene Commissioner Pete Sorensen voted no, saying negotiations should continue without the prospect of imposed contract terms. Commissioner Pat Farr has recused himself from negotiations; Farr has an immediate relative represented by AFSCME.

Mokrohisky, the county administrator, said all county employees “deserve the best compensation we can afford to provide,” but stressed the need to manage taxpayer money, too. He called the threatened strike “a sad day for a lot of people.”

Commissioners Jay Bozievich, Gary Williams and Sid Leiken voiced doubts that the county could afford to meet AFSCME’s terms without service cuts or layoffs. “At this point in time, I don’t see how we can possibly really pay for what the union is proposing,” Leiken said. “I wish we weren’t in this position. If we were much closer, my thought would probably be that you’ve got to stay in there and work this thing out. But the fact that we’re so far apart is troublesome.”

AFSCME-represented employees include broad swaths of workers across departments, from mental health specialists and community health analysts, to juvenile counselors, county planners, building safety specialists and electrical inspectors. The largest share of employees work for Lane County Health and Human Services.

The county’s contract terms, detailed in a final offer submitted to the Oregon Employment Relations Board last month as negotiations hit an impasse, would cost the county about $7.8 million more in personnel costs during the next three years compared with the current contract.

But the county added about $1 million in raises for roughly 150 lower-wage workers in the AFSCME units, such as office assistants, waste management fee collectors, clerks and others. The changes raised the county’s offer to about $8.8 million in higher costs over three years.

AFSCME’s final offer would raise employee personnel costs by about $32.6 million over three years.

AFSCME representative Jim Steiner said the union was trying to work toward a compromise with the county but was disappointed by the move to impose terms.

“We’ve had a lot of exchanges,” Steiner said late Tuesday. “Their response to that is to spend time (working toward) implementation.”

County and union representatives have held multiple negotiating sessions with a state mediator during the past month, including Monday and Tuesday. Those discussions were set to continue later this week, even if workers strike.

Follow Elon Glucklich on Twitter @EGlucklich . Email elon.glucklich@registerguard.com .

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