By Jerome Tharaud/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
The Havre firefighters union came to the bargaining table Wednesday night agreeing to drop one of its major proposals, but after that, contract negotiations with the city stalled.
After more than three hours of negotiations with the city, three union proposals, including the firefighters' wage raise and the city's health insurance contributions, were still not settled.
Representatives of Local 601 of the International Association of Firefighters, which represents 15 Havre firefighters, dropped a proposal asking the city to add the firefighters' health insurance contribution to their base wage in order to boost their eventual retirement earnings. The city had objected to the idea, saying it would discriminate against single employees.
The union held firm to its proposal of a 4 percent, across-the-board pay raise for this year. It also proposed that firefighters pay the same health insurance premiums they paid last year, leaving the city to pay for the entire 45 percent health insurance premium increase that happened in August.
The union wants to retain language in last year's contract that guarantees the city will pay for any increase in health insurance premiums until the parties have negotiated new rates. The city has been paying the increase since August.
The union also is requesting higher monthly skill pay for emergency medical technicians, which the city has opposed because skill pay was increased last year.
Also still on the table is a union proposal to clarify contract language about pay for firefighters who assume a higher rank to fill in for an absent employee.
After leaving the room to discuss the union's proposals, the four members of the Havre City Council's Labor Relations Committee came back without a counterproposal.
"We finally came to the conclusion that we're just too far apart at this point to come back with a counterproposal," said Jack Brandon, chair of the Labor Relations Committee. He asked the union to come back with a more realistic proposal.
"If you come back to the table and say, 'We're firm,' then that's the way it is, and we're at mediation," he said.
The two members of the union committee who were present left the room and returned about 40 minutes later.
"We went and had a heart-to-heart with the guys on duty and it was the consensus of the group there that basically we would just like to break even this year," said Mike Anderson, who chairs the union's negotiation committee.
Anderson told the City Council's committee that one of the issues the union will probably not give in on is the health insurance premiums.
"We at this point can't give up that protection," he said. "That means everything to us."
That protection includes the contract language requiring the city to pay for any premium increases next year until new rates are set by negotiation. Anderson said that since the firefighters have no control over their insurance policy, they need the protection the language provides.
"You people are running the system, and yet when it fails you want us to pay for it," Anderson said.
"We're saying that any kind of benefits should be part of the collective bargaining process," he said. "It shouldn't be a given. It shouldn't be automatic."
The sides both said an agreement where the city would pay for half of any premium increase next year until negotiations take place is a possibility. At 10:30 p.m., the sides decided to call it quits for the night.
"We simply would like to settle this, but we seem to be far apart. But I don't think it's as much as it appears," Anderson told the committee at the end of the meeting.
Brandon said he needs to meet with city clerk Lowell Swenson to see how much money three months of paying the firefighters' insurance increase is costing the city.
"I feel like the next time we sit down at the bargaining table we'll have something to go on," he said.
The parties agreed to meet again Tuesday at 7 p.m.