Sununu says ‘irresponsible antics’ by unions lead to breakdown in contract negotiations

  • Gov. Chris Sununu celebrates his re-election victory on Nov. 6 in Manchester. AP

Monitor staff
Published: 4/18/2019 3:22:02 PM

The negotiations were over almost as soon as they began.

Shortly after union heads for New Hampshire’s state employees and Gov. Chris Sununu’s team met to negotiate the state’s next employee contract, the unions had rejected the governor’s terms, Sununu’s office said in a statement Thursday.

The two sides will now enter fact-finding mode, the governor’s office said.

“Although State employees have received two raises in the past 12 months, union leaders are refusing to negotiate and have walked away from the table on day one of mediation,” Sununu said. “It is unfortunate that state employees have been caught in the middle of these union politics.”

Union negotiators for the State Employees Association (SEA) – the state’s largest union – saw it differently. In a statement, the union said talks broke down because the governor declined to budge on pay raises.

Jim Nall, co-chairman of the bargaining team, called it a “concessionary contract” that failed to include cost of living increases despite flush state revenues.

“The economy is booming, yet the state wants us to accept a small, deferred wage increase, along with changes to overtime and prescription benefits that would do real harm to the people who keep this state running,” Nall said. “It would be a massive disservice to them – our members – to accept what the governor is proposing.”

Representatives for the three other unions did not respond to press queries Thursday.

Under New Hampshire’s contracting process, negotiations on new contracts occur every two years, with new contracts officially due by the start of the first fiscal year of the budget biennium, which is this coming July 1. But hard-nosed negotiating tactics from both sides have seen the parties miss that in recent cycles; breakdowns during negotiations in 2017 resulted in an impasse on a new contract for nine months.

The parties met Wednesday to begin mediation on a February imp asse declared by New Hampshire’s four unions: the State Employees Association (SEA), New England Police Benevolent Association, New Hampshire Troopers Association, and Teamsters Local 633, which represents corrections officers.

Back in February, union officials lambasted an offer by the governor as “a joke,” calling it a concessionary contract that provided only “very minuscule” increases in pay and included a paid family leave plan introduced at the expense of other benefits.

“Bottom line is the givebacks are so extreme, experience has taught me it’s not even worth bringing that back to the bargaining senate,” SEA negotiator Jim Nall said in an interview at the time.

The April 16 mediation date was proposed to bridge the gap. Just a week prior, the governor’s chief negotiator, Matt Newland, said in a statement that the mediation would “continue until the parties reach agreement or continue on to the next steps of the bargaining process.”

“As always, the state continues to make a good faith effort to reach an agreement that is fair to both state employees and taxpayers,” Newland added at the time.

But when the groups reconvened, the unions appeared to have the same objections this month as two months ago: The contracts proposed by the governor’s team do not contain sufficient pay raises.

Breakdowns in negotiations tend to quickly turn political. In the fall of 2017 and into the spring of 2018, union advocates and Democratic opponents of the governor used the impasse to stage rallies at the State House in support of wage increases, raising the pressure for an ultimate compromise in April 2018.

New to this year’s standoff are two complicating elements: a Supreme Court ruling prohibiting public and private unions from automatically collecting dues from employees and a push by Sununu to get unions on board with a paid family leave plan that requires their participation to function.

How long an impasse lasts will ultimately com e d own to the appetites of two sides who feel their hand is strong. On Thursday, Sununu fired the first volley of his own, pointing to the cumulative three percent wage increase for most state employees that emerged from the last negotiation.

“The state has proposed a number of enhanced benefits and even proposed an additional wage increase – all of which union leaders are refusing to consider,” Sununu said. “These irresponsible antics are an incredible disservice to our hardworking state employees.”

But officials with the union said that the SEA had returned to the bargaining table Wednesday with a lowered proposed wage increase, only to find that the governor’s negotiators had not moved from their number. And they objected to what they said was a push by Sununu’s team to impose “medical care step therapy” in workers’ health insurance a process by which patients must try lower cost medications for ailments before moving on to more expensive ones.

“Governor Sununu is seeking another concessionary contract, when the state workforce continues to suffer from concessions made during the recession,” he said.

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