County union authorizes strike

July 2, 2011

After negotiations between the Local 1082 and Hood River County broke down earlier this year, the county chose to implement its last best offer to the union.

With the contract implementation, the local gained the ability to strike, and they appear close to doing so after 75 percent of the membership of Local 1082 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees voted to authorize a strike against the county last week. Results of the vote were released Wednesday.

Prior to any actual strike the union would have to file a 10-day strike notice with the county.

Represented by the 1082 are employees who work more than 20 hours per week in the county's finance, building, juvenile, health, planning, assessment and records, district attorney's office, elections, justice court and county administration office.

County deputy district attorneys and those working in supervisory, part-time or temporary positions are exempt from the strike.

The county and union have been at odds over a variety of issues from the start of negotiations on the current contract, with the main sticking point during negotiations being over retroactive healthcare payments by both bargaining units.

After the county implemented the contracts in late April, Sorenson said the union was backed into a corner.

"The county left us with no choice… it gutted our rights with the contract and the employees decided we could not live with this contract," said Jaime Sorenson, the AFSCME staff representative for the union.

Sorenson said one of the biggest issues that led the 1082 to the decision to authorize a strike was the provision in the contract for layoffs.

In previous contracts layoffs were based on seniority first and according to a copy of the implemented contract provide by the county, the county now has the ability to "retain staff based on skill, ability and qualifications as determined solely by the County. In the event (two) or more employees are determined equally qualified by the County, the senior employee shall be retained."

While the local 2503, the other county bargaining unit represented by AFSCME, is also operating under an implemented contract; it has not taken action toward a strike.

The contract with the 2503 does not contain any changes to the layoff policy and keeps the policy of layoffs in accordance with seniority in place.

"Honestly, it's baffled both bargaining units as to why (the county) would do it this way … it seems to be a personal grudge," Sorenson said.

Hood River County Administrator David Meriwether said the county was aware of the strike vote but did not have any actions currently planned.

"We were aware that this tool was available to them and they have the right to exercise it," he said.

Meriwether said that the reason the county advocated for the county determined layoff qualifications is that "the most competetent employees are not always the first or last hired and we wanted to have the authority to make those decisions for the good of the organization."

Sorenson said the union was open to returning to the negotiation table with the table.

"We are always open to working with the county to work out a deal," she said.

Meriwether said no further negotiation sessions have been scheduled.

"The contract is in place," he said. "We don't have any sessions planned."

Keith Cunnignham-Parmeter, a professor of law at Willamette University in Salem said that the decision to vote for a strike was understandable by the union.

"I can understand why the union is up in arms about this," he said. "Job security is the golden cow of unionism, if you strike that down you are playing with fire."

However he added, that strikes are dangerous for unions to undertake, especially in a time of economic turmoil.

"Strikes are always dangerous for unions and that is why you rarely seem them utilize the ultimate weapon in their arsenal," he said.

Before it files a strike notice with the county, the union could also potentially file several unfair labor claims practices against the county, following multiple claims by both sides which were filed previously in the process.

Hearings for one of the earlier claims are currently ongoing in Salem while another has a hearing scheduled in September.

Paul Gamson, chairman of the Oregon Employment relations board which is handling the unfair labor pracitce claims, said the 10-day strike notice is a state law requirement to give both sides time to prepare and to possibly step back from the brink.

"It's to give the public employer a chance to prepare for a strike since public services are involved," he said. "It also ups the ante and gives the parties some urgency to meet again and resolve their differences."

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