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Published: Thursday, 2/10/2005

Turnpike workers OK contract, avert strike

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

The Ohio Turnpike's unionized toll collectors and maintenance workers have approved a three-year contract, heading off what could have been the first strike in the toll road's 50-year history.

In voting conducted by mail since Jan. 28 and tallied yesterday, members of Teamsters Local 436 approved a pact that closely resembles the terms of a fact-finder's report they rejected a month earlier. But Gary Tiboni, the local's president, said one of the changes was critical: a cap on the monthly fees workers would pay to participate in a full-coverage health-care plan.

"The difference was capping the health care," Mr. Tiboni said yesterday after union staff counted the vote of 434 in favor of the contract and 274 opposed.

Starting April 1, turnpike workers will choose between contributing to the cost of an "enhanced" health-care plan that covers all expenses or participating in a "standard" plan that has no up-front cost but requires co-payments and deductibles.

The cost for "family" coverage under the "enhanced" plan will be no more than $66 during the first year, $80 during the second year, and $99 during the third year. The cost for "single" or "single-plus-one" coverage will be capped at lower amounts.

The agreement, which must be approved by the Ohio Turnpike Commission, provides full-time turnpike workers with raises of 3.5 percent in the first year - retroactive to Jan. 1 - and 3 percent in ensuing contract years.

Certain maintenance workers are to receive additional "equity increases" totaling 51 cents an hour to bring their pay to the same scale as that of full-time toll collectors by the third year. Workers at the top of the collectors' pay scale will make $20.95 an hour during the first year, $21.58 an hour during the second year, and $22.23 an hour during the third year.

Part-time collectors are to receive raises of 3.5 percent plus five cents an hour during each of the contract's three years, retroactive to Feb. 1. Their top pay would be $15.65, $16.25, and $16.87 an hour during the contract's successive years.

Tom Noe, the turnpike commission's chairman, said he would recommend passage when the panel meets Feb. 22.

"I think [the union] made the right decision, and it's good that we can keep going now," Mr. Noe said after hearing of the vote.

"I'm happy that we were able to reach a fair agreement," Gary Suhadolnik, the turnpike's executive director, said yesterday.

Local 436 represents nearly 1,000 turnpike toll collectors and maintenance workers, although only 825 of them are union members. The 434 favorable votes represented 61.3 percent of ballots cast and 52.6 percent of all members.

The previous contract expired Jan. 17 after being extended from its original Dec. 31 ending date. In early December, the unresolved negotiations were referred to a State Employee Relations Board fact-finder, whose Jan. 5 recommendations were rejected by 497 union members .

Local 436 gave the turnpike commission the mandatory 10 days' strike notice shortly thereafter with a deadline set for

12:01 a.m. Jan. 24. Three days of talks during the previous week produced no settlement, and turnpike management assigned extra supervisors to the Jan. 24 overnight shift so they would be available to take over toll collection if the union walked out.

But last-ditch negotiations that began during the afternoon of Jan. 23 led to the union's announcement early the following morning that it would refer management's "final offer" to the membership.

Mr. Tiboni and Mr. Suhadolnik agreed that the critical difference between the fact-finder's report and the tentative agreement was that the union members' potential cost for "enhanced" health coverage could go no higher than previously estimated.

Other changes included an extra nickel raise in each of the three years for the part-time toll collectors, and changes in scheduling language that guarantee full-time toll collectors at least two out of four weekends off and a more even distribution of work hours among part-time collectors.

Union leaders previously said turnpike workers should not be expected to participate at all in health coverage costs, saying that the turnpike had not demonstrated financial inability to continue to provide full coverage.

"Our position, obviously, was to try and get through" without health-care co-payment, the Local 436 president said.

"We didn't get that done, but realistically we think it's a good contract."

Contact David Patch at:

dpatch@theblade.com

or 419-724-6094.



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