The battle to get a first-ever union contract for Dunkirk Housing Authority workers enacted will continue. Common Council must approve the deal - but how much of it is under council's authority to approve or disapprove has turned out to be a sticking point.
United Steelworkers of America representatives and DHA Attorney Peter Clark met with council's Personnel Committee to see if progress could be made in getting council to approve the pact. If anything, the meeting made council's approval less likely - at least in the short term. Jim Briggs, a staff representative with the Steelworkers and Local 2693 President John Taddio represented the workers.
"We have an issue with a group that signed to join a union back in 2007. Dunkirk Housing Authority, by law, the city council has to authorize the wage portion of the package and we've talked about this before," Briggs began. "It's getting increasingly more difficult for these workers since their last pay increase was in 2007. I put together a new letter to try to explain it better. I thought maybe there was some confusion after the first meeting, but there seems to be concern that approving these wages somehow tied into city contract bargaining. Nothing is further from the truth."
OBSERVER Photo by Gib Snyder
Councilwoman-at-large Stephanie Kiyak had plenty of questions about the proposed contract between the Dunkirk Housing Authority and its workers during a recent meeting of council’s Personnel Committee.
Briggs said the three-year wage increases included in the DHA contract actually cover a five-year period.
"The three years of wages that were finally agreed to actually come out to 1.75 percent over a five-year period. They also agreed to cover 40 percent of any increases in the health insurance. ... This isn't a great contract, but these people and their families need the wage increases ratified."
Briggs added the workers will not become union members until the first contract is ratified.
"It's a fair contract," Briggs stated. "I think the Housing Authority did what they had to do to protect their interests, and we tried to do what we had to do to protect the workers and their families' interest.
Briggs said he wanted to answer council's questions, adding he would like to be able to tell the DHA workers why council has not approved the wages.
"I don't understand it. ... The housing authority has no problem with it. ... We all thought this was a fair deal," Briggs added. "We still think it's a fair deal and it's theirs. They have to pay it, you're not liable for it."
Clark said the contract went to mediation to get settled.
"At that point there were some issues the Housing Authority was adamant on and the union said OK. The board approved it and money comes from HUD," he explained. "The agreement will expire at the end of this year even if it is approved."
Second Ward Council-man William J. Rivera chairs the committee with council members Stephanie Kiyak and Michael Michalski as members. Also in attendance was Fourth Ward Councilwoman Stacy Szukala, Mayor Anthony J. Dolce and City Attorney Ron Szot.
Kiyak and Szukala had plenty of questions about health insurance and payments DHA workers would make under the contract. The answers were not what they wanted to hear. Kiyak said it's a small group of people who get 100 percent coverage any more.
"Providing 100 percent health coverage is now a luxury," she continued. "I don't know if we can continue that trend in good conscience, to allow a certain group of people, whether it's this union or other unions that will be coming up. I feel I'll say the same thing regardless of which union is coming and speaking to me."
Kiyak said without knowing the insurance she couldn't make a decision.
Briggs saw things differently.
"Under the law you guys have a responsibility for the wage increase and the wage increase only," Briggs explained. "No other provisions of the contracts are the responsibility of the council. ... A wage increase will set the contract in place. My understanding of the law is the wage increase is what the city council has to approve."
Kiyak was ready to accept the DHA position until Szot spoke up.
"Section 32, the first paragraph does talk about how the local authority votes on the compensation. The last section of Subsection 4 talks about wages, benefits or other compensation," Szot explained. "I think, case laws, compensation is more than just wages and that's my interpretation."
Briggs said he would check with the union's legal people while Kiyak wanted information on what the insurance now covers. Briggs pointed out that prior to negotiations the benefit package was an agreement between the DHA and workers.
"What I'm saying, what I'm trying to make you understand, is whatever was in place is still in place and until this contract is signed they're not going to contribute," Briggs explained. "Once this contract is signed and then they'll be obligated to contribute 40 percent of an increase."
Szukala wasn't im-pressed.
"If the increase is $20 you're going to tell me they're going to pay 40 percent of the $20 increase and that is fair?" she asked. " ... I think that's just ridiculous."
After more back and forth on insurance, wages and raises, Briggs said again the workers had not had a raise in five years.
"I understand, but you know what, a lot of people are suffering out there right now," Kiyak shot back. " ... It's almost insulting to feel that there should be a select group of people that, whether here or anywhere else, that should be not subject to having to pay for what the majority of Americans have to pay for, which is health insurance.
"I don't understand that just because you're part of a union or you've worked somewhere for 35 years that that should be an automatic given until you take your last breath. The majority of Americans pay for health insurance regardless of whether they're union, or they're working for private industry or they're working for themselves.
"I am not insulting you by saying, suggesting, that they should do something that is outlandish. I'm only asking that they come on board and recognize that times have changed and perhaps they need to start contributing just like the rest of us to our health care."
Szukala was of like mind.
"Just so you know, when those other contracts do come, my goal will be to say no if they're not going to contribute to health care, and I don't want to discuss raises. We're struggling as a community, not just Dunkirk. This needs to be addressed before it gets out of hand," Szukala said.
Briggs asked if there were more questions but Kiyak said there was no point as she wasn't moving off the insurance issue.
"Let's just end the meeting now," Briggs suggested. "We'll do what we've got to do, you do what you've got to do."
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