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February 18, 1999

Pitt, UPJ custodians resume talks

Talks between University negotiators and union officials representing Johnstown campus service workers resumed Feb. 4 after a six-week hiatus. But both sides reported continued frustration at the lack of progress.

The 52 Johnstown service workers are members of Local 29 of the Service Employees International Union, AFL-CIO. They have been working on a series of monthly contract extensions since their contract with Pitt expired July 1, 1997.

John Greeno, assistant vice chancellor for employee/labor relations and the University's chief negotiator, said, "There was not a lot of movement in the [Feb. 4] negotiating session. Most of the discussion was on contract language, not on wages and benefits."

According to Local 29 president Billy Joe Jordan, the union wanted to streamline some of the proposed contract language. "There's a whole page in there on disciplinary action, for example. We don't need all that in there," Jordan said. "That's covered und er the management rights section."

Greeno said Pitt officials asked for a written proposal from the union before scheduling the next session. The union agreed. "We're still talking," Greeno said. "But we want to have them clarify their position on contract language, so we can respond."

Negotiators from both sides had expressed disappointment after the previous bargaining session held Dec. 17. (See University Times, Jan. 7, 1999.)

In a Jan. 11 letter to Jordan, Greeno stipulated two positions that would affect future negotiations: 1) that Pitt will not agree to any health insurance program for the workers that included contributions from the University in excess of those made under the "CORE" program; 2) that the union should advise him of whether it will decrease its wage and cash demands. "If local 29 will not move from this demand, then there is no purpose to any further negotiations," Greeno wrote.

CORE, in contract terminology, refers to money Pitt contributes to employees' medical benefits, regardless of the plan an employee chooses. Under terms of the expired contract, Pitt paid full medical coverage, including dental and vision care.

Johnstown campus economics professor Michael Yates, who is on the Local 29 workers' negotiating team, said that there are two perspectives clashing. "In the letter Mr. Greeno sent [dated Jan. 11], he said that payments over the CORE amount are non-negotiable. Then he says that we are preventing movement. It's true the University upped its offer for cash payments, but, you know, that money does not go to accrued retirement payment or to base pay that would increase as annual salaries are raised. And we're far apart on salary raises," he said.

According to union president Jordan, the University has offered a 2 percent raise retroactive to July 1, 1998, with a $500 cash bonus; a 2 percent raise beginning July 1, 1999, with a $350 bonus; and a 2.5 percent raise, with a $250 bonus, beginning July 1, 2000.

Jordan said, "We still think what Pitt is asking us to pay [for medical benefits] is too high. We'd save Pitt a lot of money by agreeing to [the CORE program], and they should put some of [that money] back into the agreement."

But Jordan acknowledged that the union would accept the CORE benefit offer, if the University were willing to compensate employees sufficiently with salary increases and cash bonuses. He declined to specify what amounts would be adequate.

Greeno agreed that instituting the CORE medical benefit limitation would save Pitt money, but argued that this was a standard limitation placed on all employees. "We've said [to Pitt employees], 'Choose the plan you want and we'll pay this amount, and the n you make up the difference.' We asked the union to give us what amounts of cash and wages that would balance that, and then we can negotiate from there," he said.

But Yates pointed out that Pitt's offering of 2 percent salary increases fails to meet what the University paid other employees in the last fiscal year's raises. (Pitt's Board of Trustees approved a 3 percent increase in the pool of money for salaries for FY 1999.)

According to Johnstown custodian Gloria Leyman, a member of the Local 29 bargaining team, union members also were concerned that the proposed contract called for the creation of a "utility worker" classification that the workers did not want. "They're try ing to hire people at $3 an hour less than [other union] workers, and have them go across jobs, like, be custodian and groundskeeper and maintenance [worker]," Leyman said. "Will they also offer [utility workers] any overtime?"

Greeno said the University is planning to create about six utility worker positions at the Johnstown campus, which would all be new-hires, but there is no time frame for implementing that plan. He also said he felt this and other issues were resolvable af ter the main two issues — benefits and wages — are agreed on.

Both sides have agreed to the length of the contract, which, if ratified, would run until June 30, 2001. Negotiators, who had been meeting every two or three weeks in the fall, said they expect talks to resume in the near future.

–Peter Hart

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