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EWEB contract is rejected again.

Byline: Jeff Wright The Register-Guard

Union workers at the Eugene Water & Electric Board on Monday again rejected the utility's latest contract offer, resurrecting the possibility of a strike in the weeks to come.

Union leaders declined to say how many union employees took part in the vote, held at the steamfitters' union hall in Springfield, or the ratio of defeat.

"It's irrelevant - we're a democracy," said Ron Jones, business manager for International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 659, about the vote tally. "A vast majority voted no."

Jones acknowledged that the union's number of eligible voters has dropped to 139 from 155 as a result of recent resignations by union members.

Jones said the union's bargaining committee will meet soon to decide on its next course of action. He said the union would entertain any offers by EWEB to return to the bargaining table.

The union has twice previously rejected proposed contracts. In agreeing to yet another vote, the union last week rescinded its notice of intent to strike. That means the union cannot now strike until 10 days after a new notice is submitted to EWEB. No decision has been made about when to submit a new notice, Jones said Monday.

The union has been without a contract since Dec. 31. Outstanding issues include health benefits, Veterans Day as a paid holiday and retroactive pay. EWEB has rejected the union's request to submit to binding arbitration.

Union workers strongly believe that EWEB has refused to show any give in recent negotiations, Jones said. "To a majority of the membership, there was not any significant movement," he said.

EWEB spokesman Marty Douglass called the union's latest vote "really disappointing."

"We viewed this as a fair proposal and hoped union members at EWEB would see fit to approve it," Douglass said. "What happens next remains to be seen. We felt the next move is in the union's court."

Douglass noted that EWEB on May 18 implemented its "last and best" offer, which includes salary increases of up to 12.4 percent over three years, several other contract improvements and no reductions in benefits.

Douglass said it's too early to know if EWEB will propose a return to the bargaining table. "We need to consider what our next steps might be and, indeed, if we want to take any next steps," he said.

In the contract rejected Monday, EWEB had proposed capping out-of-pocket costs for catastrophic illness at $2,000 per employee and $4,000 per family, an improvement over current limits of $3,000 and $6,000, Douglass said.

"To our way of thinking, that was significant," Douglass said. `We did that after some pretty serious deliberations by both staff and our (elected) board.' The utility had planned to offer the same health coverage improvement to nonunion employees, he said.

Jones said union members still want a greater say in which insurance companies are hired by EWEB to provide health coverage. "If we're going to pay more in premiums, we'd like to help pick the plan," he said.

Jones acknowledged a split between union leaders, who believed that EWEB's contract deserved another vote, and the union's bargaining team, which was prepared to go on strike last week.

"We explained to members that this maybe is not a desirable agreement, but we support it as an alternative to a strike," he said. "But our bargaining committee did not support the deal. In a way, we're apart, but we have to continue to work together."

Jones said he and other union leaders support Monday's membership vote. "It's up to the majority to tell us their opinion," he said. "They are the ones who are taking the risk."

Most union workers approached on Monday declined to comment on the vote, or said they'd been asked by union leaders not to comment.

Ross Adams, a line technician who has worked for EWEB for nearly six years, was the last member to vote before an 8 p.m. deadline. Adams said he voted no on the contract "because they're not budging a bit. I think we deserve better."

EWEB officials asserted last week that they would consider permanently replacing workers in the event of an extended strike.

Public employers in Oregon have the legal right to hire permanent replacement workers during a strike, "but no one has actually ever done so," said Bob Bussel, director of the Labor Education and Research Center in Eugene.
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Title Annotation:Utilities; A union official says no decision has been made on submitting an intent to strike
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jun 13, 2006
Words:738
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