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Published: 1/15/2005

Workers issue strike deadline

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Union toll collectors and maintenance workers will walk off their Ohio Turnpike jobs at 12:01 a.m. Jan. 24 if a labor contract is not reached by then, according to documents the union presented to the turnpike commission after rejecting a fact-finder's contract recommendations.

"That's our deadline. Under [state law], we've got to give them 10 days' notice, and we've done that," Gary Tiboni, president of Teamsters Local 436, said yesterday.

A negotiating session has been scheduled for Wednesday at Local 436's hall in Valley View, Ohio. A State Employee Relations Board mediator is to attend the talks.

"I'm still optimistic that we're going to reach a settlement," Gary Suhadolnik, the turnpike's executive director, said yesterday. "A strike is not really in the interest of either party."

The main reason Mr. Tiboni cited earlier this week for his members' rejection of a compromise contract proposed in a Jan. 5 fact-finder's report is co-payment or premium sharing for health benefits. Under the union's current contract, which after being extended now expires on Monday, only new full-time employees must contribute toward their health coverage costs.

Mr. Tiboni said yesterday that he has "no idea" if renewed negotiations will be fruitful.

"We're going to go to the table and try to resolve our differences," he said.

While turnpike commission members voiced unease Monday about wages, which would take top-scale toll collectors to $22.23 per hour during the third year, and health benefits they considered lucrative, they said they were voting "yes" to avoid a strike.

Mr. Tiboni said the wage provisions in fact finder James M. Mancini's report were not a factor in the union leadership's recommendation that the membership reject it.

If the union holds to its deadline, a strike would occur almost two months after the start of a seven-day strike by two other Teamsters locals against the Pennsylvania Turnpike. No tolls were collected on Thanksgiving Eve, the first day of the Pennsylvania strike, after which the toll road collected flat-rate tolls using nonunion employees.

On Dec. 20, the Ohio Turnpike Commission adopted a flat-rate scheme of its own as a strike contingency plan.

During any strike, large trucks would be charged $10, small trucks and buses would be charged $5, and passenger vehicles would be charged $1 at turnpike exit points. Passenger vehicles using the turnpike's Ready Toll debit cards would pay 50 cents.

Along with approving the flat-rate tolls, the turnpike commission on Dec. 20 authorized toll-road managers to hire temporary replacement workers if needed.

Mr. Suhadolnik said turnpike officials have not calculated how much revenue the turnpike would lose during flat-rate toll collection.

The flat rates were chosen with simplicity in mind while attempting to be close to average turnpike fares, he said, though he acknowledged that travelers making shorter trips would pay more than they normally do.

Carl LaFong, a Pennsylvania Turnpike spokesman, said the financial impact of its November strike is still being calculated. Lost revenue has been estimated at $2 million, offset by about $1 million in wages that didn't have to be paid to strikers.

The Ohio Turnpike's current daily payroll for bargaining unit members is about $158,000, although that includes about 170 probationary and nonunion workers within the group.

Mr. Suhadolnik said the probationary and "fair share" workers would be under no obligation to honor Teamsters picket lines.

But he declined to say whether the turnpike would order them to cross those lines during a strike.

"We're hopeful that they'll come to work," the turnpike chief said.

"Whether we settle or don't settle, we have a lot of employee relations work to do over the next couple of months."

Contact David Patch at:

dpatch@theblade.com

or 419-724-6094.



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