New union to represent Berne highway workers in upcoming talks

BERNE — A long-simmering feud within town government may be tamped down, if not extinguished, soon.

Or. at least, communication will soon begin, marking an improvement over the current state of affairs in which one party, the town supervisor, claimed in December he had never heard back from the labor union, and the labor union says it had never heard from the supervisor.

Best-case scenario: A new contract for the town’s highway department employees emerges from negotiations set to begin Jan. 17, according to Michael Kutski, labor representative in  the Capital Region office of the United Public Service Employees Union. The current contract has expired.

Worst-case scenario: Agreement cannot be reached on the main sticking point, which is whether a highway department policy put in place by Highway Superintendent Randy Bashwinger early last year is to remain in effect. Or to be no longer an issue.

Bashwinger, who is an elected official and not a member of the bargaining unit,  put his crew on a modified schedule in good-weather months: a four-day week consisting of four 10-hour days.

Town Supervisor Kevin Crosier objected vehemently to the Fridays-off schedule. He laid off two highway employees but later called them back. The 4/10 work week remained in effect through much of the year.

Crosier, a Democrat, and Bashwinger, a Republican who is active in the local party, have locked horns over both this issue and Crosier’s dismissal last summer of a town employee, Scott Green. Bashwinger has been highly critical of  Crosier’s managerial style as “too controlling” and Crosier has denounced Bashwinger for “dragging the town through the mud on social media.”

Crosier has said  that the town reached a tentative agreement in March on a new highway- workers contract  with  the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 158, which had been the unit’s union ever since it was first organized. Among other things, the town offered a 2 percent annual raise over the three-year course of the contract.

But that agreement fell apart, according to Crosier,  when it was voted down by the workers who refused the town’s demand that the number of 4/10 weeks per year be limited to no more than eight, with any additional abbreviated weeks requiring the authorization of the town board.

The highway workers, later in the year, decided to change their union. On Nov. 15, the Public Employees Relations Board certified the United Public Service Employees Union as the unit’s new representative in negotiations with the town.

Kutski told The Enterprise that soon after certification  his union asked the town supervisor to provide  the names of all highway employees, their current benefits package, and a copy of their current contract. He says no response came until the town’s labor consultant, Michael Richardson, supplied the information shortly after a Dec. 22 article Enterprise article that quoted Crosier as saying the town had tried to contact the UPSEU without success.

Kutski says, “It’s not up to the supervisor what hours they [the highway department crew] work.”

He points out that the current contract says, “The superintendent of highways will establish an employee’s work schedule and work shift to meet the particular needs and requirements of the highway department.”    

When reminded of this prerogative of the highway superintendent at a past town board meeting — by none other than the highway superintendent himself — the supervisor replied, “Yes, but we [the town board) control the money.”

Kutski says he will leave it up the members what stand he should take in the upcoming negotiations on the issue of the 4-day, 10-hour-day workweek. It’s up to them to decide, he said,   “if they feel it’s still a necessary instrument to save the town money or if they feel it’s no longer valuable to the town.”

That established, he and Kevin Kennet, the unit’s steward, will  soon sit down with Michael Richardson, the town’s labor consultant, and, perhaps, with Crosier to set the ground rules for negotiations.

And, then, finally, a dispute of almost a year’s duration, may begin to come to an end.

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