Arbitrator will decide ATU ambulance pact

PORTLAND, OR -- An ambulance strike will be avoided in the Portland metropolitan area because Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 757 and American Medical Response Northwest (AMR-NW) have agreed to binding arbitration to settle differences in a contract that has been in negotiations since 1995.

In February, paramedics and emergency medical technicians at AMR-NW overwhelmingly rejected a contract proposal filled with takeaways and were threatening to strike. AMR-NW, which is owned by Laidlaw Inc., has exclusive contracts to provide 9-1-1 emergency ambulance services in Multnomah and Clackamas counties in Oregon and Clark County in southwest Washington.

The two sides returned to the bargaining table last month with a mediator and were able to reach a tentative five-year agreement on all terms except two: Wages and health insurance. An arbitrator will make the final decision on those issues. The parties are apart by 3.5 percent on wages and 5 percent on health insurance, with the employer demanding that all new employees pay 25 percent of all health care coverage costs.

"For all practical purposes, this is a first-time contract," said Ron Heintzman, president and business representative of Local 757, which was the employees' representative until a decertification in 1996. After a year-and-a-half, an independent association that was created out of the decertification was unable to come to an agreement and employees returned to Local 757. "The two-year hiatus destroyed our status as an established bargaining unit with a continuous agreement," Heintzman said. "We essentially had to bargain from ground zero."

The tentative agreement calls for retroactive pay back to February 1996, employer-matched pension contributions and no cuts in holiday premium pay.

In Vancouver, an arbitrator gave part-time drivers at C-VAN, a Laidlaw Inc. company that contracts with C-TRAN to provide transportation to elderly and handicapped riders, more than a $1 an hour raise plus other improvements. The contract expires in June 2000.

The binding arbitration finalizes the first collective bargaining agreement for the drivers following a National Labor Relations Board election a year ago, when it was Dave's Transportation (Laidlaw bought the company after negotiations had begun).

Employees had previously rejected two tentative agreements.

The new contract calls for Laidlaw to use no more than 40 percent part-time drivers and bumps starting pay from $6.80 to $8 an hour, with increases of 25 cents an hour after six months, one year and two years. Top scale drivers with four years' experience will see a $2.50 an hour wage hike, Heintzman said.

Of Laidlaw's 55 drivers, only eight were considered full-time, he said. Under the new contract 20-25 drivers will immediately become full-time employees with full benefits.

Additionally, the arbitrator granted part-time drivers eligibility for sick leave, but not bereavement leave or vacation pay, as the union originally sought.

Walsh to step down as Tri-Met general manager
Tri-Met's Tom Walsh announced last month that he will resign as general manager of the the public transit authority following the startup of the westside light rail line in September.

His departure coincides with the opening of contract negotiations with ATU Local 757. The contract expires Dec. 1, 1998.

"Under Tom's tenure labor relations have improved," said Heintzman. "His philosophy has been to work with employees and treat them as fairly as you can."

In 1994, Walsh pulled a first by coming to terms on the current collective bargaining agreement prior to the old contract's expiration. It had been a different story in 1992 -- his first full year on the job -- when drivers and mechanics were on the verge of a strike after Walsh withdrew a two-year contract that had been ratified by workers 1,080-62, claiming a mathematical error made the deal too expensive.

Tri-Met's board upheld Walsh's decision, which led to many crowded (and vocal) board meetings, claims of attempted union-busting, unfair labor practice (ULP) charges and a vote to strike.

But throughout the ordeal Walsh remained candid with employees. At one board meeting he told them, "You ought to be somewhere between mad and frustrated as hell at me. You haven't been treated very well by this process and I apologize to you for that."

The two sides eventually came to terms without a strike.

Heintzman said the union's concern is whether or not Walsh's successor will have the same philosophy of "working with employees rather than against them."

Tri-Met board member Phil Bogue is chair of the search committee that likely will go national looking for a replacement.


April 3, 1998 issue

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