Southold’s town workers, who have been working under an expired contract since the beginning of 2013, could be without a contract until well into 2014, said both the town’s special labor counsel and labor leader this week.
The town and its workers’ union last met on Dec.11 for a marathon mediation session that union representatives had said they’d hoped to settle that night. But the session ended with both sides calling for the state’s Public Employee Relations Board to appoint a fact-finding board to look at all the evidence on both sides and recommend the terms of a new contract.
Southold and its workers declared impasse in the negotiations in early summer and have been working with a mediator to resolve their differences.
The town is offering workers tiny salary increases and asking them to pay significantly higher medical insurance premiums, said Southold Civil Service Employees Association President Tom Skabry this week.
Mr. Skabry said, however, that he was heartened that Town Supervisor Scott Russell participated in the Dec. 11 negotiating session, after Mr. Skabry recently made several public pleas to town board members to actively participate in the negotiations.
“I felt Mr. Russell being there was very positive,” said Mr. Skabry. “Everybody in the room was able to focus on the contract instead of posturing.”
He estimated that, if PERB agrees to appoint a fact-finding board, a new contract could be hammered out in four to 12 months.
The town’s labor attorney, Richard Zuckerman, also said the request for fact-finding will draw out the negotiations for quite some time.
“The mediator reached the conclusion that there was no point in further mediation. The gap is too wide,” he said. “The parties agreed mutually to ask PERB to appoint a fact-finder. The letter went out Tuesday [Dec. 17].
“We’re allowed to continue to negotiate without waiting for a fact-finder. Fact-finding is a trial, with witnesses and statutory criteria that we have to address with evidence. A competent fact-finder is going to spend a lot of time. That takes months, not days. If we have to go that route, it will take longer.”
Mr. Skabry also said it was unfortunate that the negotiations have dragged on so long.
“Ultimately, we would like to hammer out an agreement without having to wait,” said Mr. Skabry. “Everybody is trying to pay their bills. Honestly, it’s already been six months longer than we would hope to have been negotiating.”
Currently, town workers are receiving their STEP salary increases but no other salary increases, due to the expired contract, he said. All other terms of the old contract remain in effect.
If both parties don’t agree to the terms of a new contract proposed by PERB, the town has a right to impose a one-year contract which doesn’t diminish any benefits town workers currently receive, while negotiations for the next contract would start all over again.
Mr. Zuckerman, who represents 40 municipalities all over Long Island, said the vast majority of the negotiations he’s involved in this year have ended up going to fact-finding, more than ever before in his 30-plus years in the business.
“It’s really hard to settle a contract today because employers have less money than the union wants for its members,” he said. “Employers don’t want to give up, and frankly, if you’re representing a union, why would you settle? The process is taking much longer. I have more open contracts than at any time in my career.”
“Clearly, union negotiators understand there is only so much money available,” he said. “Some of the problems cannot be solved given the economy and the current constraints. That’s what’s taking so long.”