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Swartz says new union contract could boost morale

January 18, 2000|By SCOTT BUTKI

The morale of Washington County government employees is low and a new union contract could provide an opportunity to change that, Washington County Commissioner Paul L. Swartz said Tuesday.

"I think we strongly need to look at ourselves," Swartz said.

Swartz's comments came during an unusual public discussion that kicked off negotiations between the county and the union representing about 105 of the county's 640 full-time employees.

The existing contract between the County Commissioners and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 2677 expires June 30, 2000. It became effective July 1, 1997.

The new contract will cover unionized employees in the fire and rescue, highways, solid waste and transportation departments.

The negotiations will be behind closed doors, but Tuesday's discussion was public, at the request of the County Commissioners, County Administrator Rodney Shoop said.

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"The commissioners wanted to hear a general overview of what the union was going to be requesting this year," Shoop said.

James Bestpitch, union staff representative, said he has not negotiated in public in 20 years and didn't want to start now.

Bestpitch, in response to a question from Commissioner William J. Wivell, said employee morale is low but he hopes a new contract will resolve some concerns.

Swartz agreed.

Commissioner Bert L. Iseminger, however, said that while employees aren't always happy with county decisions, he doesn't think there is a major morale problem.

Bestpitch said there is a perception by some union employees that the county sometimes treats them unfairly, to include paying them less because they are in the union.

"I take exception to that," Human Resources Director Alan J. Davis said.

Davis said such a perception is incorrect, that union and nonunion employees aren't treated differently, and that salaries are not different.

Bestpitch said the union's top goal is to return to the contract language that was not in the document adopted in 1997.

The provisions, related to transfers, dismissals and other areas, were taken out of the contract after the county decertified the union and then, in response to a state law, recertified it, he said.

Those provisions are covered in the county's employee handbook, Davis said.

Bestpitch said the handbook has a provision allowing the county to disregard some of its rules on occasion. Davis confirmed that provision exists.

Bestpitch gave the commissioners proposed ground rules but they were not acted on.

The proposed rules call for both sides to meet once a week until a contract is finalized or an impasse is reached and to seek binding arbitration if both parties declare an impasse.

The rules also call for both parties to refrain from making public statements on the talks until negotiations are completed and for the current agreement to remain in effect until a new one is adopted.

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