Strike in third week

Public-service workers say they would rather work
By: Stephanie Dumm News Messenger Reporter
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Thirty-six public-services employees continue to picket City Hall, the airport and the city’s corp yard in an attempt to get a labor contract they can agree with. The employees began their fourth week of striking on Tuesday, trading their shorts and T-shirts for jackets and pants because of this week’s changing weather. Union reps were hoping to get back to the negotiating table on Wednesday, according to International Union of Operating Engineers Local 39 business representative James Britton on Monday. The strike began after the Sept. 13 City Council meeting, where the city implemented a Last, Best and Final Offer for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 39, which is comprised of the city’s 37 classified employees. Those employees work in the city’s streets, wastewater, solid waste, transit, airport and fleet maintenance departments. Only one employee chose to cross the picket line on Sept. 14 so 36 of the 37 union members are on strike. The employees are striking because of a change to their heath-care coverage in the Last, Best and Final Offer, which had them paying 10 percent out-of-pocket for healthcare and 100 percent of any health-care rate increases, according to previous News Messenger reports. A tentative agreement was ratified by the labor group on Sept. 19 and presented to City Council for approval on Sept. 27. That agreement had the employees paying five percent out-of-pocket for healthcare in 2012 and 10 percent in 2013, according to previous News Messenger reports. Instead of voting on the agreement, all five City Council members directed city staff to go back to the negotiating table. The News Messenger asked City Manager Jim Estep if he was disappointed with the council’s non-approval of the tentative agreement. “I don’t get disappointed over things like that. Obviously, I think everyone would like to have an agreement and it’s just a matter of coming up with an agreement both the employees and City Council can agree on,” Estep said. The Last, Best and Final Offer is now in effect, Estep said, and “will stay in place” until a new agreement has been approved. “It’s really up to them to either come to the table or accept what’s already in place,” Estep said. “When I talk to the employees, what I’m hearing is everyone would just like to get into an agreement and everyone would like to get back to work.” Britton said the City Council’s position is not currently known. “Normally, a person in charge of being the city’s spokesperson brings the City Council’s position to the table,” Britton said. “The City Council hasn’t had a position. That makes it more difficult because we end up having to bargain against ourselves.” Mayor Paul Joiner wouldn’t say what concessions the City Council is looking for when asked by The News Messenger on Sept. 27, following the last council meeting. “We’ve given direction to the negotiators and they know what we are looking for. We need to leave that in their purview to discuss that with Local 39’s negotiating team,” Joiner said. “It would be considered unfair labor negotiations (to say what concessions the City Council is looking for).” Airport employee Richard Spinale said Monday that he believes his group is being used as a “whipping boy” to show the labor groups what concessions will be expected of them. “Our concessions are completely life changing,” Spinale said. “It might mean a dinner out and a bottle of wine (for the other labor groups), but for us, it’s life changing.” When asked if striking was worth it, Spinale said yes. “It’s either put up a fight instead of laying down with a whimper,” Spinale said. The labor group has been working to inform Lincoln residents about why they are striking through different venues. Brian Button, a wastewater employee and steward for the group, said he and others have been passing out fliers at both Raley’s and to cars and pedestrians passing by City Hall. Mike Osborne, who works as a fleet mechanic, started a Twitter page for the strike, which can be found at “We are trying to get the word out to a wider audience,” Osborne said. “We want the public to know why we are on strike because there’s a lot of misinformation out there.” Osborne wants the public to know that the attitude he and his fellow co-workers “have toward Lincoln” hasn’t changed. “We love our city and don’t want people to have the impression that we feel different about it,” Osborne said. “We are looking forward to going back to work.” The strike’s financial impact, since employees are not collecting a paycheck, has had an impact for those The News Messenger talked to. Jack Schwarz, a fleet mechanic, said he had to take money out of his 401(k). “I will be able to make my bills (this month). I got that money out to help catch up,” Schwarz said. Button said he had to both borrow money and had to “push back” some bills but “the strike has been worth it. “We are standing up for what we believe in, for what is right,” Button said.