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Published: Saturday, 1/22/2005

Ohio Turnpike talks break off as Monday strike date nears

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

With a strike deadline looming early Monday, negotiations between the Ohio Turnpike and a Teamsters local representing its toll collectors and maintenance workers broke off yesterday afternoon without a settlement and with the union offering little hope of one.

Gary Tiboni, president of Teamsters Local 436, said no progress was made during three days of negotiations, despite the presence of a State Employment Relations Board mediator.

"As of now, we intend to take them out at one minute after midnight Monday," Mr. Tiboni said.

The two sides could not even agree yesterday evening as to whether there would be more negotiations.

Mr. Tiboni said he knew of no further talks being scheduled during the weekend, "but that doesn't mean we won't get a call" back to the bargaining table.

Lauren Dehrmann, a turnpike spokesman, said SERB directed turnpike and union representatives to reconvene tomorrow afternoon.

Mrs. Dehrmann declined to comment on the talks' status, saying it is not turnpike policy to comment on "ongoing negotiations."

Local 436, which represents nearly 1,000 maintenance workers and toll collectors on the 241-mile toll road across northern Ohio, set its strike deadline last week after rejecting a fact-finder's proposal for a new three-year labor agreement.

The old contract ended last Monday after being extended from its Dec. 31 expiration.

The main sticking point in negotiations has been health insurance.

Except for workers hired after the last contract took effect three years ago, full-time turnpike workers receive fully paid health insurance or get a bonus to take lower coverage that requires copayment of expenses. The union wants the arrangement to stay that way, while turnpike management insists that the work force contribute to the rapidly rising cost of health care.

Neither side was pleased with fact-finder James M. Mancini's health-care proposal, which would have required bargaining-unit members either to copay their health expenses or pay a premium difference of up to $66 per month for a more expensive plan that would require no copayment.

Turnpike commissioners called Mr. Mancini's recommendation too generous compared with the health benefits other public-sector workers receive, while Mr. Tiboni said the turnpike failed to provide any economic justification for introducing any employee participation in carrying health-care expenses.

But while the commissioners said they would reluctantly accept the report's contract recommendations in the interest of labor peace, Mr. Tiboni said health copayment was the main reason a negotiating committee urged members to reject the fact-finder's report.

Other issues that are at impasse, Mr. Tiboni said, concern full-time toll collectors' scheduling and part-time toll collectors' wages.

In rejecting the fact-finder's report, the union turned down raises of between 3 and 3.5 percent for each of three years that would put toll collectors' and many maintenance workers' top pay at $22.23 per hour during the third year.

Toll collectors' top pay is now $20.24 per hour, while the top wage for the most common maintenance classifications range between $19.93 and $20.05 per hour.

Top pay for part-time toll collectors is now $15.07 per hour, with no health benefits. The fact-finder's report proposed 3.5 percent annual raises for them.

While Gary Suhadolnik, the Ohio Turnpike's executive director, has declined to detail his plans to keep the road open during a strike, the commission has approved flat-rate fares and authorized management to hire temporary workers if needed.

The strike tolls are to be $10 for large trucks, $5 for small trucks and buses, and $1 for passenger vehicles.

Passenger vehicles using turnpike debit cards would pay 50 cents.

The turnpike has trained temporary workers holding commercial drivers' licenses to operate its snowplows and other maintenance vehicles, Mrs. Dehrmann said yesterday.

Those workers and qualified supervisors will be put to work if winter weather occurs during a strike, she said.

Contact David Patch at:

dpatch@theblade.com

or 419-724-6094.



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