Highway Workers to Town: Negotiate New Deal Now

Union shop steward Mike Stern addresses the Town Board. Credits: Bob Dumas

MAHOPAC, N.Y. - Union members from the Carmel Highway Department—the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) Local 456—have been working without a new contract for more than five years and they told the Town Board last week they are at the breaking point and want the issue resolved now.

Many from the 34-member union showed up at the Town Board meeting last Wednesday, June 8, to show their solidarity with assistant shop steward Mike Stern, who addressed the Town Board on the matter, saying the town workers are being treated unfairly.

Stern told Mahopac News that the union didn’t want to go public with the matter but felt that, after five years, it had no choice.

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“We saw what happened to the police department and it wasn’t pretty,” he said, referring to last year’s arbitration hearing between the town and the Carmel PD over their contract negotiations.

Stern said that while an arbitration process was available to the highway workers, it would not be binding; either side could reject an arbitrator’s decision, so it wasn’t a route the teamsters wanted to take.

“[Any arbitration decision] would just come back to us as a recommendation,” he said. “It can keep going in circles and it would waste taxpayer money.”

Stern said the major stumbling block in the negotiations has been over employee contributions to healthcare benefits—a similar point of contention the town had in its negotiations with the PBA (the police union).

“A few years ago, this wasn’t a high-paying job, but we took it because of the benefits,” Stern said, noting that employees weren’t required to make contributions to the healthcare benefit. “But we had to break the mold and that’s tough to do.”

Stern said the highway workers make more money these days and are willing to concede that making healthcare contributions is a reasonable request. The sticking point, however, is how large that contribution should be.

The arbitration decision on the police contract called for a 10 percent healthcare contribution, and Stern said his union felt that would be appropriate for them as well.
“That’s where we got our number; that’s what the majority of the unions in our town pay,” he said.

Stern said the town actually put an offer on the table that included the 10 percent contribution plan and the union was poised to accept it, but then the town rescinded the offer.

“There was no printed offer; it was verbal,” he said. “We felt it was fair, but we had to stop the meeting because one of them had a work obligation. We were going to come back and accept it, but then they retracted it. We were told it was the consensus of the board. And that’s the thing: it seems like the goal line keeps getting pushed further and further away.”

Stern said he believes the job the highway department does is crucial and the workers deserve what they’re asking for.

“We aren’t being unreasonable,” he said. “We are on call six months of the year and we are not allowed to leave. We are not asking for anything outside of the box. The healthcare contribution—that’s the 800 pound gorilla in the room.”

Councilman Jonathan Schneider, who is part of the Town Board’s negotiating team, contends that the contract issues go beyond just benefits contributions.

“It’s benefits and raises,” Schneider told Mahopac News. “Anyone would be happy to contribute if you had a 50 percent raise. The small details and the simpler things we can agree on. Wages and benefits are the two things [causing the impasse.] They are both interrelated. We are trying to find that common ground, but those two are both hand in hand.”

Stern also said he believes there has been a lack of communication between the negotiating teams. He said the last time the two sides sat down at the table was about six weeks ago.

“One would think the communication would be there, but we are here and we are ready,” he said. “Our membership is tired of this; we have had to initiate [bargaining sessions] all the time and that’s why we had to go public with this. It’s been a stalemate for years.”

Stern noted that the town is in much better fiscal shape than it was five years ago when the contract first expired. He said the town’s bond rating has improved and a recent audit lauded the town’s financial management.

“[Town comptroller] Mary Ann Maxwell’s office has done a fabulous job,” he said. “So if money is not the issue, then what is the problem? We find it remarkable [there has been no agreement.] We take pride in our job and we have asked for nothing more than fairness.”

Both Schneider and Stern said the two sides are more than willing to get back to the table and hammer out an agreement.

“There is nothing formal on the table, but I think it’s very promising that within a short time we will be sitting down again,” Stern said. “I want to make it clear there is no animosity toward anyone here. We grew up with these people.”

Schneider said the entire board would like to get this done as quickly as possible. 
“This is the most outstanding contract we have, but we want something that is fair to everyone,” Schneider said. “I don’t think we are at a point where we are not willing to talk to each other. I think we need to get to the level where everything can be looked at with clear vision and [then we can get it done].”

Supervisor Ken Schmitt said he was somewhat ashamed that the process has taken so long and would encourage his negotiating team to get a deal done.

“We all know you guys do an excellent job, there’s no question about it,” Schmitt told the group of highway workers during last week’s meeting. “It is unfortunate we are in this situation. I know something like this can affect performance, but I don’t think it has. We would like to get this ironed out. I will encourage my colleagues to sit down in earnest and get it worked out. I want to reach an agreement sooner than later.”

Highway Superintendent Mike Simone, who is not a member of the union, was at the meeting to show support for his crew.

“I am here to support my men,” he told the board. “I applaud them for everything that they do. We have done a lot of tremendous projects and these guys deserve this.”

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