By Jerome Tharaud/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
The Havre City Council and a union official representing 17 Havre police officers have agreed to suspend the officers' grievance for 30 days while the parties try to negotiate new health insurance premiums.
The council and Dick LeTang, field officer of the Montana Public Employees Association, made the decision during a meeting of the committee of the whole Monday night.
"Then I would say at this point the grievance is on hold, a 30-day window to try to negotiate something," City Council President Rick Pierson said at the end of the meeting, after both LeTang and the other City Council members indicated their approval of the extension.
The agreement means that, at least for now, the parties have avoided binding arbitration.
Union representatives will meet with members of the City Council's Labor Relations Committee at least twice in the next 30 days to discuss how much should come out of officers' paychecks every month to pay for coverage under the city's health insurance plan.
Health premiums went up about 45 percent this August. City employees paid for half the increase and the city raised taxes to pay for the other half.
The police union filed a grievance on Aug. 19 alleging an unfair labor practice after police officers found that the new higher premium was automatically being deducted from their paychecks.
The grievance claims the city violated the officers' two-year contract by increasing health insurance premiums the second year without reopening negotiations. Last year - the first year of the contract - the city absorbed a health insurance premium increase, but the contract specified it would only do so for that year.
The contract states, "For the second year, Medical Insurance shall be open for negotiation." The union has said that both parties agreed that rates for the second year would be set by collective bargaining.
City officials have said they followed the contract.
The grievance first went to Havre Mayor Bob Rice, who denied it earlier this month. The union then sent a letter asking for a review by the City Council.
If at the end of the 30-day extension no agreement has been reached, the council will have to vote to either accept the grievance and negotiate new terms or deny it. If it votes to deny, the union will have 15 days to submit the grievance to the state Board of Personnel Appeals.
The agreement Monday came after a tense discussion about letters sent by each side that were not responded to, and about who was responsible for the breakdown in communication that prevented negotiations from opening before the new health insurance rates were passed on to the police.
LeTang said he sent a letter to the Havre Mayor Bob Rice on March 21 asking the city to meet with the union to reopen the contract. The city did not respond. He said the union sent another letter in August before the implementation of the new health insurance rates. He said City Council member Jack Brandon, who chairs the council's Labor Relations Committee, responded that there would be dates open in September to negotiate. Soon after, the higher premiums were deducted from the officers' paychecks.
"It is the union's position that because the city failed to meet with us prior to implementing the new health insurance premiums, that out-of-pocket expense has been suffered by these city policemen that may have been able to have been avoided if we could have sat down and negotiated," LeTang said.
"We believe the horse got before the cart on this, and that we want the city to go back and honor the old arrangement until such time as they are willing to sit down with the union, meet with us, and negotiate a new premium rate for the second year of the contract," he said.
"Because you put it in the mail doesn't mean I got it, OK?" Rice responded. "... I'm here to tell you I didn't get the letter," he said, adding that the letter was not sent through certified mail.
"You're putting the blame on me for something I never got, and I don't like it," Rice said.
LeTang told Rice the union has never used certified mail in the past to open contract negotiations, but will do so in the future.
Brandon said he sent a letter to LeTang on Aug. 27 asking for a date to meet and did not get a response from LeTang.
LeTang said he could not get ahold of Brandon.
Brandon said that before the budget is finalized, the Labor Relations Committee can't make any commitments anyway.
"We didn't have anything negotiated," Brandon said. "We didn't have any authority because the budget wasn't set."
Both sides said they would have to make the language of the next contract more specific to avoid this kind of problem. The police union and city will negotiate a new contract for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2004.
After the meeting, city and union officials said they are pleased that at least for now, binding arbitration has been averted.
"I think they're willing to sit down and talk, and hopefully we can come up with something here that can resolve this issue and move on," LeTang said.
Rice said he is glad the groups were able to talk.
"I thought it went well," he said. "It may end up there (binding arbitration) anyway - I don't know - but at least we've got some dialogue going."
Havre police Sgt. Bill Wilkinson, the representative of the local bargaining unit, said after the meeting he was willing to grant the city the extension.
"Well, I guess we all need the time to work it out," he said. "We'll give it to them if that's what they need."
Brandon said he was going to begin setting up a session of the Labor Relations Committee quickly to negotiate what the officers' contributions will be.
"I think this is the only way we could go," he said. "We're going to move forward on this as quickly as we can."
Pierson said he thinks the extension was a step in the right direction.
"Well, we came to an agreement with them - that was favorable. We'll just have to see what happens in the next 30 days," he said.
A formal letter will be sent to the union informing them of a date to meet. It will be sent by certified mail, Pierson said.