The state of Oregon, as one of the biggest employers within the state, often faces tumultuous negotiations regarding its labor contracts with its employees. Just one example of this is the state’s ongoing negotiation with the service employees’ union, which recently hit a fairly major snag
According to a report by the Statesman Journal, on June 11th, the Service Employees International Union Local 503 (SEIU) – a union that represents state workers such as homecare providers, nursing home employees, childcare providers, and even the people who repair bridges and plow snow in the wintertime – declared an impasse in its negotiations with the state. The state and the SEIU had been in mediation for several weeks regarding the employment contract for 2013 to 2015; though either side was free to declare an impasse at any time, the spokesperson for the Department of Administrative Services, Matt Shelby, claimed that the state was surprised by the union’s decision to do so.
The Union is Concerned about Economic and Social Justice Issues
As one might expect, one of the main problems at issue in the labor negotiations has to do with money. According to Dan Smith, the lead negotiator for the union’s bargaining team, the most contentious issue has been the economic package – including cost of living adjustments, furlough days, and step increases. According to the state, it cannot make a firm offer to the union regarding the economic package until the Oregon Legislature passes a budget, which may not happen for several more weeks. While Governor John Fitzhaber omitted any mention of salaries or raises when he announced his proposed budget, he did note early on in the mediation process that he intended to curb furlough days for workers who had taken them four years in a row.
Economic considerations, though obviously important, are not the only sticking points in the negotiations. The union leader, Smith, claims that the state has failed to meet the union’s demands regarding so-called “social justice” issues. In particular, the SEIU wants the state aggressively to pursue litigation against banks that lost the retirement saving that public employees had placed in the Public Employees Retirement Fund.
What is the Effect of Calling an Impasse?
When conducting labor negotiations with the state, calling an impasse means more than just throwing up one’s hands and saying that the two sides cannot find a common solution. On the contrary, declaring an impasse puts into effect a very specific procedure: both the state and the union are required to submit an offer within one week, and then are required to have a 30-day “cooling-off” period. After (and only after) both those steps are completed, the state is allowed to unilaterally execute its final offer and union workers are allowed to stage a strike.
The union’s lead negotiator, Dan Smith, notes that declaring impasse is somewhat common (it happened in the 2009 negotiations, though not the 2011 ones) and should not be taken as a strategy to provoke a strike. Instead, Smith claims that the union called the impasse only a means to help preserve its bargaining time frame. As per impasse rules, the first day a strike could occur would be July 14, but neither side believes that a strike is on the horizon, and both sides are committed to continuing negotiations throughout this time period.
It will be interesting to see how the negotiations proceed between the state and the SEIU in the wake of the impasse declaration. At the very least, this situation provides a good reminder of how many steps there often are between a labor dispute and an official strike.
If you or someone you know is contemplating a difficult labor negotiation, please contact one of our experienced attorneys who can vigorously represent your interests.