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'Go back to bargaining table,' Toledo council says


City union members listen as city council delayed a vote on a fact-finding report for public employees Tuesday, 09/20/11, in Toledo, Ohio.

The Blade/Jeremy Wadsworth
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Faced with an audience of hundreds of angry union members, Toledo City Council Tuesday postponed a vote to impose concessions on the city’s largest employee union and called on the Bell administration to resume talks with city workers.

Council’s unanimous decision met with a raucous cheer from city employees and other union faithful, including about 150 farmworkers, who packed the council chambers in support of AFSCME Local 7. The union, which numbers about 850 city service workers, has maintained that wage freezes and benefit cuts sought by the administration are too severe and would plunge many of its members into poverty. Their call for a return to the bargaining table had been rebuffed by the administration, which Tuesday forecast a dire financial outcome for the city if the cuts it seeks are not enforced.

READ: Mayor Bell's letter to council on Local 7

But councilmen said Tuesday they would not be rushed into voting for the contract and dismissed the administration’s assertion that an impasse had been reached. They moved to allow for two more weeks of negotiations.

“For us to be asked to make this vote tonight I think is premature,” councilman Paula Hicks-Hudson said. “I’m not saying there hasn’t been (negotiation), but there hasn’t been enough.”

The Bell administration has asked council to impose a contract that closely resembles recommendations made by an independent fact-finder last month. AFSCME members overwhelmingly rejected the recommendations, which call for a two-year wage freeze and larger health-insurance and pension contributions from employees. The union says its workers, which are paid on average $37,000 a year, would lose about $6,000 in take-home pay over the next three years if the proposed contract moves ahead.

Currently, the city pays for 95 percent of an employee’s heath insurance and 100 percent of pension costs, a system City Finance Director Patrick McLean Tuesday called “unsustainable.” The 10 percent employee portion of pension contributions, now paid for by the city, costs $11.4 million a year, he said. The proposed contract would raise employee health care contributions to as much as 15 percent, depending on income, and require workers to pay 10 percent of their pension costs.

Without changes to employee benefit packages, Mr. McLean said the city would have to lay off 130 city workers by November and eliminate funding for residential street repairs, recreation and senior citizen programs. He also projected between a $5 million and $8 million deficit for 2011 and said the city expects a $10 million shortfall in 2012. Most of that shortfall is because of cuts in state funding and the end of one-time solutions such as the sale of city assets, which the administration used to balance its budget this year.

“We simply can’t keep doing this,” Mr. McLean told council. “Opposition to the changes is like being opposed to math, frankly.”

Several councilmen were unimpressed by the city’s bleak financial forecast, however. Steven Steel accused the administration of trying to “bully” council to vote for the contract and sideline the union’s demands for further talks.

“Until both sides believe an impasse has been reached then an impasse hasn’t been reached,” he said. “Mr. Mayor, we have not reached impasse. Please respect the human rights of all our employee members in this city.”

Councilman Phillip Copeland, who usually remains quiet during council meetings, animatedly condemned the administration for refusing to bargain further with Local 7. His speech was met with loud cheers from union members.

“I say shame on you and shame on the mayor and shame on this administration,” Mr. Copeland said. “I think what the citizens of Toledo want us to do is the right thing, and the right thing is to vote this thing down.”

Urging for negotiations to resume right away, Councilman D. Michael Collins suggested the two sides meet before the end of today to decide on a schedule for talks and to appoint a mediator. Other councilmen also stressed that talks must begin soon.

“I’m not asking for two weeks of silence. I’m talking about two weeks of discussion and after that, action,” councilman George Sarantou stated. “Both sides need to sit down, and to sit down now and come to an agreement.”

Echoing statements made by union officials, Mr. Collins also criticized city administrators for not cutting their own salaries.

Streaming out of City Hall following Tuesday’s decision, union members shouted “Thank you” to council members and expressed enthusiasm about the upcoming talks.

“The council’s obviously heard our cries to go back to the table,” AFSCME representative Steve Kowalik said. “We’re ready to go back to the table. We will start tonight if that’s what it takes.”

Pete Rocco, a 54-year-old city maintenance worker, said he felt “a lot of relief” when he heard council’s decision. He said he and his fellow workers have felt stress in recent weeks worrying about how the proposed cuts would impact their lives.

“We know we’ve got to give something back, but not losing our house,” Mr. Rocco said. “We’re thankful to council.”

Public utilities worker Nino Miracola, 54, said he would look for a job in the private sector, which he said pays better than the city, if the contract’s terms are not changed. He stressed that public employees rely on public pensions because they are not entitled to the same amount of social security as private workers.

Many of those attending the meeting came from unions other than AFSCME, including teachers, skilled trades and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, or FLOC, which represents farmworkers.

FLOC president Baldemar Velasquez, who bussed in around 150 tomato pickers from fields across northwest Ohio, said it was important for workers to stand together in the face of attempts to undermine their livelihoods. He said the current trend of government cutbacks resulting from the financial crisis ultimately forces workers to pay for Wall Street’s excesses during the boom years.

“The mantra’s always the same. You’ve gotta balance the budget on the backs of working people, marginalizing them even further,” Mr. Velasquez said. “This is a polarization of wealth ... it’s got to stop. Workers have got to stand in solidarity with one another.”

Aji Green, a candidate for City Council District 1 — the seat now held by Democrat Wilma Brown — also attended the meeting, and applauded council’s decision.

“The last thing we want is for men and women in this city to continue to get trampled on,” he said. “If they allow this to go through right now, then what’s next? Our firemen, our police? We don’t want that to happen.”

But deputy mayor Steve Herwat said the decision to postpone a vote Tuesday points merely to a lack of “political backbone” among councilmen.

“Quite frankly, we’re not going to have any more money two weeks from now than we have today,” he said. “They know they have to make a tough decision and they don’t want to do it.”

Contact Claudia Boyd-Barrett or 419-724-6272.

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