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April 27, 2000

Wages, health care stumbling blocks in negotiations between Pitt, custodians

Contract negotiations continue between the University and Pittsburgh campus custodians, who have been working without a contract since Jan. 1.

According to representatives from both sides, health care costs and wages remain the biggest stumbling blocks to a settlement.

The two sides have met twice this month, with the next bargaining session scheduled for today, April 27.

Both sides are hoping for a multi-year deal.

Pittsburgh campus custodians, including cleaners, maintenance workers, groundskeepers and pool operators, are members of Division 29 (formerly Local 29) of Local 585 of the Service Employees International Union, AFL-CIO.

Mike Salmon, Local 585 union representative and negotiator, said, "We have resolved some issues. We have contract language agreement on layoffs and the grievance process, for example. I think we're trying to develop a responsible and practical working relationship with the University. But health care costs and wages are still the big concern."

According to Salmon, the union membership is flexible about the source of the money — increased wages or increased health benefits payments — "but that the bottom line is workers cannot afford the health plans. In some cases, [paying for] family coverage puts our workers below the poverty line," he said. "Family coverage, even at the lowest rate of $110 a month, would probably negate any increases in wages."

He added, "Pitt talks about parity: 'Everyone pays the same $110 [for family coverage].' But of [Chancellor Mark] Nordenberg's $265,000 salary, it's less than one-half of 1 percent. Yet we're asked to pay at least 6 percent of our salaries. That's not really parity."

Pitt spokesperson Ken Service, director of News and Information, said, "From the Uni-versity's perspective we agree that there's been some progress in the negotiations, but the major economic issues are still to be resolved. The University feels that we've offered a fair total compensation package and we are optimistic that we will be able to reach an agreement." He declined to give specifics of the package.

Salmon said Pitt's recently announced three-year deal with UPMC Health Plan is encouraging. He said the union is not necessarily committed to subscribe to the UPMC Health Plan, but that was the likely choice. "I think it's helpful to us to know that the University would pick up increases in the health insurance premiums over the next three years. Our [expired] contract said that we had to pick up 35 percent of any increases."

As a new tactic, the union plans to lobby state legislators who sit on the House and Senate appropriations committees, Salmon said. "We're hoping to get some support to make Pitt earmark a certain part of their state appropriations to health care for workers each year." He said union members would appeal to legislators in person.

Salmon acknowledged that it was probably too late in the current budget cycle to influence the 2001 fiscal year budget process, but said contract language could be negotiated to ensure future legislative action would not be precluded by the contract.

"The overall goal is to get Pitt to take care of its workers. We think we have some sympathy for that goal in the state legislature," he said.

Asked to comment on the union's plan, Pitt spokesperson Ron Cichowicz said, "We prefer not to speculate on what the union may do. We are actively involved in the negotiating process right now on current contract issues, and hope to move toward resolution."

Also at issue for the union, Salmon said, is the University's alleged slow compliance with a December 1999 arbitration ruling that ordered Pitt to pay back wages to certain employees who had been asked to do work outside of their designated work groups. (See University Times, Jan. 6, 2000.) The union filed an unfair labor practices complaint Feb. 15 with the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board (PLRB) alleging that Pitt has not honored the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service ruling.

Last December, arbitrator Elliot Newman directed the University to move the duties that had been transferred to work group 1 cleaners back to work group 2 groundskeepers; to award back pay to the cleaners who performed groundskeepers' duties, and to pay the pool operators who re-bid jobs as cleaners back pay at the pool operators' rate, retroactive to Feb. 7, 1999.

To date, no action has been taken by the PLRB.

"We're really trying to keep that separate from the contract negotiations," Salmon said. "We've had verbal assurances that the University will comply. At some point, though, you have to take into account the behavior of the University and how it applies to bargaining in good faith."

Cichowicz replied, "We have complied with those two areas of the arbitration ruling. It took some time to calculate how much back wages were due, but if the workers involved have not yet received their pay they soon will." Cichowicz added that "all new positions have been bid and filled under the terms of the contract and in compliance with the arbitrator's ruling."

–Peter Hart

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