Labor talks between VSEA and administration collapse

MONTPELIER – Negotiations between state workers and the Shumlin administration have broken down and are heading to mediation, according to the employees’ union.

More than two months of weekly negotiations between the state and the Vermont State Employees Association have resulted in a stalemate and will require a mediator, according to union president Steve Howard.

“It is clear labor and management cannot find a middle ground and we need to bring in an outside mediator,” Howard said of negotiations for the approximately 3,000 employees that compose the non-management bargaining unit of the union.

Steve Howard

Steve Howard

The negotiations, which began in early August, have been rocky, with, at one point, state workers taking to the streets in protest when the state canceled one of the regularly scheduled negotiation meetings. Howard said the two sides have made little progress toward a compromise.

“The governor came in slashing pay and slashing benefits, and we came in with an increase,” Howard said. “State workers are being paid less than their counterparts in the private sector and are looking at a 5.5-percent increase in health costs. We need to come to an agreement that is fair to both sides.”

Shumlin said agreeing to the terms proposed by the VSEA would be “unconscionable.”

“That position asks for a 13.4-percent pay increase over two years, which would cost Vermont taxpayers $70.6 million,” Shumlin said. “It’s beyond me how anyone could find that position reasonable. At a time when many Vermonters are not seeing their wages rise, it would be unconscionable to agree to pay increases that are more than quadruple the rate of inflation and would add substantial pressure to an already-tight budget.”

Shumlin also claimed the VSEA is intractable in its proposal.

Gov. Peter Shumlin

Gov. Peter Shumlin

“Unfortunately the NMU (non-management bargaining unit) has refused to budge from their initial bargaining position regarding pay,” Shumlin said.

Howard said the 13.4-percent figure stated by Shumlin is “disingenuous” and called the governor’s claim the union has not budged from its initial proposal “inaccurate and false.”

“We came in with a proposal of a 5-percent cost of living increase, plus step increases, and when we walked away yesterday, it was a 2-percent increase, plus steps,” Howard said.

The state is hoping the union will return to the bargaining table, according to a letter it sent to the union Wednesday.

“The state respectfully but strongly disagrees with the position taken by the VSEA,” wrote Joseph McNeil, chief negotiator for the state. “It indicated yesterday and re-emphasizes today that the State’s negotiating team is fully prepared to bargain further and is prepared to modify its current positions in order to either secure agreement or to narrow the range of outstanding issues.”

Howard said it is “unlikely” the union will return to negotiations next week, and asserted the position being taken by the state is being driven by something other than finances.

“The negotiations are different this year. There is a feeling that the state is more interested in politics than finances,” Howard said. “We’re not here to score political points. We’re here to ensure our workers earn a fair wage.”

josh.ogorman@rutlandherald.com

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