Capital Beat: Next steps in union contract standoff

  • New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu speaks to reporters in Concord. (AP Photo/Holly Ramer) Holly Ramer

Monitor staff
Published: 11/30/2019 5:08:51 PM

The state’s largest employee union is pushing for a 4 percent pay hike. Gov. Chris Sununu is backing a raise that’s a little more than half that request. The difference is what’s stopping the two sides from ending eight months of disagreements and coming to terms on a new contract.

But even after an outside report brought the two sides closer to a deal than ever, the road to get there is winding.

Sununu has proposed increasing wages by 2.32% over two years for employees across the board. Negotiators for the State Employees Association, which represents more than 10,000 state employees have endorsed the recommended 4.02% raise in the new report.

Both sides are digging in, and the way forward is less than clear.

The latest phase emerged during a recent rollercoaster afternoon when the neutral fact-finder’s report was made public after both sides failed to agree.

That report assessed weeks of oral testimony and written submissions from the two sides and came up with proposed solutions on wage increases and benefits. Negotiators for the State Employees Association quickly accepted; Sununu agreed to all conditions but the 4% increase.

An hour beforehand, Sununu announced a separate agreement with one of the state’s four unions, the Teamsters Local 633, which represents the state’s corrections officers. And several hours after that, members of a subsection of New England Police Benevolent Association representing the New Hampshire Liquor Investigators ratified a previously announced contract deal.

But with the report done and dusted, negotiations for the bulk of New Hampshire’s state employees are still unresolved. And both sides are shoring up support.

At a press conference Monday, Sununu took pains to praise the work of the Teamsters and others. His words for the SEA, who has locked horns with the governor for years, were less than glowing.

“It shocks me that union leadership is standing in the way of wage and benefit increases for the state employees,” Sununu said. “We have tremendous state employees here. It was their process. They wanted the fact-finder process. We agreed to that. And we agreed to virtually everything in the fact finder’s report. To stand in the way of that is really quite shocking.”

To Sununu, the state’s increase was a step up from what even the Legislature agreed to – an $11 million total package, compared to $6 million allocated in September’s compromise budget.

“That’s how much we wanted these increases and make sure the employees were taken care of,” Sununu said. “Because they are working tirelessly day in, day out. So we nearly doubled what the Democrats in the Legislature offered, and they still said no.”

At least one Democrat rejected that analysis. Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes, a candidate for governor, said Wednesday that the $6 million was added to the budget alongside language to increase that amount by using lapsed department funds if necessary. Sununu’s proposed budget from March, Feltes said, did not include additional money for unions nor lapse money.

“This is irresponsible and poor management,” Feltes said of the impasse. 

A 2.32% wage was not always Sununu’s preference. According to the report, the governor offered a $250 flat raise to all employees in the first year and a 1% increase in the second year. The report appeared to influence a major change in that position.

For the unions, the report prompted significant concessions as well. Originally, negotiators proposed an 8% annual hike, arguing it was necessitated by rising costs of living, rising private-sector wages and the proximity of many workers to Boston. Accepting the report’s recommendation meant making peace with just half of that.

But to Rich Gulla, president of the SEA, the increase was still worth championing.

“The most important thing to remember is wages,” said Monday. “Senior administrators within state government acknowledge a higher retention problem for the state. We have a hard time keeping good, qualified people. And wages is the most important demand.”

What happens next is a labyrinthine process. First, the fact finder’s recommendations go to the union membership, with all 10,000 members of the State Employees Association getting a chance to weigh in. That happens by mail-in ballot; each employee then has a few weeks to make a choice.

Then, according to the statute, the “board of the public employer” also gets to weigh in. In this case, that would be the Democratically-controlled Executive Council, which “shall vote to accept or reject” the recommendations.

But therein lies the catch. While the statute appears to mandate the Executive Council have a say, the governor retains control over what to put on the Council’s agenda. If Sununu does not want the Council to approve the contract, he can simply not let them vote on it, according to one official familiar with the process.

At that point, per the statute, if the union’s membership approves the recommendations and the governor rejects them, they head on to the Legislature.

This is the part that is particularly unclear. Negotiators on both sides say they’re not sure whether it would take the form of a bill or a resolution. But they agree on one thing. If the Legislature approves the contract, and the governor successfully vetoes it, it’s back to square one.

The negotiations begin again, the fact finder’s report be damned.

Both sides remain hopeful that that wouldn’t happen.

“My hope is there will be a lot of state employees calling union leadership and telling them ‘you gotta take this deal, it’s a great deal, it’s better than even what the Legislature was willing to do,’” Sununu said. “Given all that, I feel very confident that eventually we’ll get to something.”

Gulla, though, says the union is standing by the report.

“We’re not going to have a concessionary contract again,” he said.

 

 

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, at (603) 369-3307, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)




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