State Employees Association calls initial Sununu contract offer ‘a joke’

  • New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu running for re-election speaks at the NHGOP Rally For The Midterms event in Bedford, N.H., Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2018. (AP Photo/Cheryl Senter) Cheryl Senter

Monitor staff
Published: 2/25/2019 6:21:29 PM

New Hampshire’s largest public employees union is standing by its decision to break off bargaining for its next contract, accusing Gov. Chris Sununu of proposing a “concessionary contract” that takes away more than it gives.

In an interview, State Employees Association negotiator Jim Nall disparaged the contract suggested by Sununu and said that it was a non-starter for negotiations.

The contract, Nall said, included a “very minuscule” increase in pay for workers and a paid family leave plan balanced out by clawbacks to other workers. But he and other union officials declined to go into detail on the nature of the offer.

“Bottom line is the givebacks are so extreme, experience has taught me it’s not even worth bringing that back to the bargaining senate,” Nall said. “I think someone would string me to a tree if we did it. It’s that pathetic.”

The comments bode poorly for any immediate breakthroughs in negotiation, a week after the SEA and three other state unions declared the bargaining process at an impasse and five months before the next contract is due to begin.

That move to call the impasse – kicked off last Tuesday by the N.H. Troopers Association – immediately threw both camps on the defensive.

In a statement Tuesday evening, Sununu denounced what he saw as political motivations, and said the pay raises requested by the union were unnecessary after recent efforts to raise them.

“After receiving two raises in the past six months, and hesitating to accept a free paid family medical leave program for their members, it is clear the unions have not been acting in good faith,” the governor said.

But Nall said it was the governor’s team that had shut down debate by turning in a counterproposal that ran at odds with the union’s presented goals. Rather than teasing out its offers, the SEA chose instead to present all of them at once, Nall said.

“This round we were very clear that we didn’t want to play the game,” he said. “We went in; we gave them all of their proposals. The state would not show any of their hand until they had all of ours exposed.”

At issue are pay raises. Under an agreement reached last April – itself the result of a 10-month impasse – the unions received a 1.5 percent salary hike immediately and an additional 1.5 percent hike in January.

Sununu has pointed to the pay bumps as an example of recent improvements and said any future requests would be disingenuous. But Nall argued those recent increases came a year too late. The SEA’s new offer, which he declined to specify, was intended to bring New Hampshire up to par with living costs and at a pay level competitive with private sector work and other states, Nall said.

Then there’s paid family leave. Sununu and Vermont Gov. Phil Scott are working to convince their state employee unions to sign onto a privately-administered two-state family leave plan in order to build up a base pay of workers.

That program would be funded by the state. “Why would the state employees reject a free additional benefit for their members?” Sununu said in a press conference last week.

But Nall dismissed the plan as premature. “While right now that looks like a great thing to jump on, it’s in the legislative process,” he said. “It would be irresponsible for us to negotiate into a contract.”

The unions had been involved in the bargaining process since December, according to Leah McKenna, a member of the SEA team, though the unions had been formulating its proposal since September. Now, the parties will head into a negotiation period; if talks break down, the matter will head to fact-finding.

It’s become a familiar journey for union leadership, which is steering into the second impasse of Sununu’s tenure. An initial refusal by Sununu to offer any pay increases in 2017 led to an over 300-day impasse for the contract intended for fiscal years 2019 and 2020. That breakdown set off waves of State House demonstrations from union supporters, and engendered bad blood between the governor and the SEA, which endorsed Sununu’s Democratic opponent Molly Kelly in the race for governor.

On Wednesday, though, Sununu struck optimistic notes.

“It was definitely a lot quicker and faster than anything that was expected here,” he said of the breakdown. “I think we were still in the middle of negotiations. But it doesn’t mean the process stops by any means. We just enter a mediation process.

“There will be still opportunities to negotiate and come to a fair deal for both sides, for both the state employees and the taxpayers.”

Nall was less charitable. The governor’s offer, he said, was dead before it began.

“I think it’s extremely disgraceful that he insults his employees with such a minimal offer,” he said. “...What they came back with was a joke.”

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

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