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Talks between city, workers make progress

The end of this year's contract negotiations for public works employees is in sight, both sides said, after union and city representatives reached agreement on all but two of the union's seven unresolved contract proposals Wednesday night.

A pay raise and the city's contribution to health insurance premiums are still being negotiated. Even so, representatives of both sides expressed optimism after a two-hour meeting that settled five contract items.

"I think everything went super," said Darren Johnson, president of Local 336 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents the Havre public works employees. "I'm really happy with everything. I was hoping we'd be done tonight, but maybe next time."

The contract will affect 27 public works employees, Johnson said.

Jack Brandon, chair of the Havre City Council's Labor Relations Committee, also said he thought the meeting went well.

"I think we made good progress tonight. We had a lot of cooperation and we're satisfied with the progress," Brandon said afterward, adding that he hopes the last two issues will be resolved at the next meeting on Nov. 4.

The agreements were reached after each side withdrew twice and came back to the table with offers.

The union withdrew a proposal to pay workers an extra 50 cents for work done at night and on weekends after Brandon told them that would cost the city an extra $4,000.

"This year it just doesn't fit because things are too tight," he said. "We're not saying it's a bad idea - we're just saying the money's not there."

The union also withdrew a proposal to change the hours of one of the city's garbage trucks after the city said it was a management decision, not a contract issue.

The union agreed to a one-year contract rather than the three-year contract it originally proposed. The city said a one-year contract was necessary because of financial uncertainty.

The city agreed to add two new machines - a video camera used to inspect pipes and an aerial truck - to the list of machines that employees will receive higher operator's pay for using. Skidsteers, which are like small bulldozers, were the only machines the city insisted be left off the list.

The city also agreed to increase the amount of time the city continues its insurance contribution for workers injured on the job. The city will extend its insurance contribution from 90 days to 180 days except in the case of new employees still in their probationary period.

The two sides had agreed on two other articles at earlier meetings: increasing the yearly clothing allowance of public works employees from $75 to $100, and extending from 25 to 31 the maximum number of years an employee can receive an automatic half-percent raise for each additional year worked.

Also at a previous meeting, the union dropped an additional proposal that the day after Thanksgiving be made a holiday in exchange for another holiday like Presidents Day or Columbus Day.

That leaves only wages and insurance to be negotiated.

The gap between each side's wage proposals narrowed to one-half percent Wednesday night, from an original union proposal of a 6 percent across-the-board pay raise for each of three years and a city counterproposal of a 2 percent raise for one year. During the meeting the union changed its proposal to a 3 percent raise, and the city made a counterproposal of 3 percent.

The final contract item to be negotiated involves the city's contribution for health insurance.

That will be a complex process this year. In previous years the three unions that represent city workers have negotiated with the city separately to determine their health insurance premiums. This year the city has submitted a draft of a health insurance contract that would give the same contribution to all city employees.

"The other thing we are concerned with is leveling the playing field and getting on the same page," Brandon told the union representatives.

The contract proposes that the city pay for half of this year's 45 percent insurance premium increase - the same rate the city is paying nonunion and public works employees now.

Passing the contract will require representatives of all three unions and nonunion employees to meet with City Council members.

Brandon has said he hopes the sides can agree on the contract by the end of 2003.

Pam Magnuson of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees said the union has not had time to examine the draft of the contract yet, but that it has no objections to all parties receiving equal health insurance contributions from the city.

"We're not opposed to this concept at all," she said.

"I think we're all in agreement that we should have equal premiums. There's no problem with that," Johnson said.

However, the union said it wants language in the contract guaranteeing that no other group will get more of an insurance contribution than public works employees do.

"In the past we've been the first group to settle, and in the past we've ended up with the lower contribution (from the city)," Magnuson said. "What assurances do we have that you're going to keep everything equal?"

She asked the city to consider putting language in the contract guaranteeing that if another group of employees gets a higher insurance contribution from the city, public works employees would get the same rate.

Brandon said he does not think the request is unreasonable.

That issue and the union's wages will be discussed at the Nov. 4 meeting.


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