Union: A firm 'yes'

4-year contract hikes pay, trims benefits

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Port Authority union workers overwhelmingly ratified a four-year contract yesterday, pushing a long and bitter labor dispute one giant step closer to resolution.

With both pay hikes and restrictions on retiree benefits, the deal contains something for each side to like, although the union's leadership portrayed the contract as "concessionary."

"I think in today's economic times, it is a fair deal. All parties came out winning, and we live to fight another day," Patrick McMahon, president and business agent of Amalgamated Transit Union's Local 85, said last night after the ballots were counted.

But the biggest winners are Allegheny County commuters, who account for 240,000 rides a day and were preparing just last month for the real possibility of a service disruption.

Following four days of urgent negotiations in Washington, D.C., that produced a long-sought tentative deal, the contract has only one more hurdle to clear before final approval -- the Port Authority board.

Steve Bland, the agency's chief executive officer, plans to recommend that board members vote thumbs-up next Monday on the contract, which will deliver both regular wage increases and an estimated savings of nearly $93 million in post-retirement costs.

If the board says "yes" -- and there is little likelihood it will not -- bus and trolley riders can count on smooth service through June 30, 2012, although fares might go up and service might be reduced in some fashion over that period.

The contract is one year longer than usual, and that should give the riding public an extra 12 months' peace of mind.

"It is a year longer than what's normal for us, so it's one extra year of stability," Mr. Bland said last night.

He, too, described the contract as good for both sides and commended the union's leaders for getting the word out over the past 10 days or so that the deal was one worth taking.

"It's fair. It gives people a very competitive wage and benefit package, but it really does achieve a number of objectives we set out," Mr. Bland said.

Rank-and-file union members approved the deal by a margin of 1,243 to 41. First-level supervisors voted 95-3 in favor.

There are about 2,300 drivers, mechanics, other hourly workers and supervisors, meaning about 40 percent of union members did not vote.

Mr. McMahon attributed that to the work he and his executive board did in recent days to sway members in favor of the pact. In other words, Mr. McMahon said, people could stay home confident that the deal would likely be approved by those who voted.

"I think there was a pretty positive feeling that it was going to pass," Mr. McMahon said.

Ballots were cast in two shifts -- 10:30 a.m. and 8 p.m. -- at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall in Oakland. Votes were put in a lock box and not counted until after the evening meeting.

Most union members came to the early gathering. As Port Authority employees trickled out of the later meeting, most seemed upbeat. The few who stopped to speak with the news media called the contract fair.

"I like the deal. It's good," said 21-year veteran mechanic Rich Vechter, 48, of North Versailles. "We've still got a job."

Bus driver Dwayne McKitrick, 44, of Shaler, called the contract a "fair deal" and said he voted for it.

"The best of it is we're going to be able to provide service to the public at large. The worst is an employer trying to shove a contract down the bargaining unit's throat," Mr. McKitrick said.

County residents were girding for the possibility of a work stoppage Dec. 1, the day Port Authority planned to unilaterally implement a contract after declaring an impasse in bargaining.

That never came to pass, as a contract was hammered out Nov. 25, but the union did not take kindly to the prospect of an imposed contract.

"It's gonna even out," Mr. McKitrick said of the pros and cons of the pact. "We understand these are tough times."

Negotiations over the past year were bitter and unproductive. The agency accepted a state-appointed fact-finder's report, but the union's executive board rejected it without sending it to members for a vote.

Matters were made more dire when Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato said he would withhold $27.7 million in county subsidies needed to trigger state funding unless the agency addressed its spiraling retiree health care and pension costs.

When more than a year of bargaining in Pittsburgh failed to produce a deal, higher powers stepped in.

Top officials in the international Amalgamated Transit Union and the AFL-CIO intervened. Under their auspices, the sides brokered a deal during four days of closed-door negotiations in Washington, D.C.

Mr. McMahon declined last night to speak in detail about the negotiations or to identify the best and worst parts of the contract.

"It's definitely a concessionary contract," Mr. McMahon said. "We understand the problems. We responded to the Port Authority's financial needs."

By Jan. 1, 2012, the pact will raise hourly pay by a total of $2.67 an hour, to about $26, and cover the majority of rank-and-file operators at the top of the pay scale.

Overall, they would receive compounded increases of 3 percent effective Jan. 1, followed by 2 percent, 3 percent and 3 percent raises on Jan. 1 of each following year.

The pact continues a controversial $500-a-month "pension supplement" for some who retire early; and provides fully paid, lifetime health care benefits for a number of employees who, because of their age and years of service, would have been forced to work longer or pay part of the premiums out of their own pockets.

It also addresses so-called "legacy" costs for future retirees -- expenses that are crippling to Port Authority's viability.

"The cost savings will be extremely useful, and it's another thing we can put behind us and we can focus on other things," Mr. Bland said.

Retirement age increases to 60 from 55 years old. Employees' health insurance contributions go up to 3 percent of base pay by Jan. 1, 2011, from 1 percent. Co-pays for doctor visits and prescriptions increase. And union members will pay up to a $500-a-year deductible for family plans.

"We've had a long, difficult month here. We've had a long, long day," Mr. McMahon said, as he spoke to assembled television cameras with his executive board and the union's attorneys standing behind him.

Now, he said, it is up to the Port Authority's board to sew up the deal. Whatever happens, he added, "our members will be out there with a smile on their faces in the morning."

Jonathan D. Silver can be reached at jsilver@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1962.


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