Guild proposes early bargaining

Limited agenda includes health insurance and wages

Guild members will be asked next month to approve an early start to negotiations with The Buffalo News. The talks, if approved by the membership, will focus on a limited agenda, most notably wages and health care.

Guild leaders believe an early start to bargaining — the current contract doesn’t expire until July 31, 2011 — could result in a contract extension that will benefit Guild members in the long run. A similar strategy three years ago helped The News reduce health insurance costs, resulting in a three-year extension and the preservation of employer-paid health care.

“This is a strategy we’ve used before,” said Henry Davis, the Guild’s point person on health care. “We think the benefits of starting early again outweigh the risks of waiting until next year.”

Why bargain now?

If we wait until next year, we will have to negotiate over a potentially difficult clause in our contract. Generally speaking, the clause says that beyond Dec. 31, 2011, the company’s contribution toward health insurance is frozen at its 2011 level plus 5 percent increases each year after that, absent an agreement to modify this provision.

The problem is that health insurance premiums have increased at a much larger rate than 5 percent a year. Employee contributions toward the premium could grow quickly into hundreds and then thousands of dollars annually, with no cap. This is on top of what employees pay for office visits, prescriptions and other medical services.

To negotiate next year will force us to confront this clause. It increases the risk that we will be put in a position in which there is little choice but to engage The News in a battle over this issue that could prove extraordinarily difficult for both sides no matter the outcome.

There is a better alternative.

By starting negotiations early, we can make health plan changes that reduce costs for The News next year, when The News is obligated to pay the full premium for health care insurance.

This approach increases the value of those changes, especially with an anticipated large increase in the health insurance premium. It also increases the likelihood of a deal that extends the contract a few years, offering stability for both Guild members and The News. Both sides benefit. As mentioned previously, we followed a similar approach in 2007. We redesigned insurance to save money in the last year of the contract, 2008, and then extended the agreement through 2011.

This time around things won’t be as simple. For one thing, the easier health plan changes, such as tweaking copayments, have largely been done. It may turn out that the only way left to achieve significant savings is to accept some cost-sharing.

For instance, one idea likely to be examined is a type of health plan in which members who use medical services pay a portion of the expenses. These types of plans typically place a maximum limit on how much employees pay each year, and they pretty much leave costs for office visits and prescriptions as they are now.

This would be a big change, and some of you may be wondering whether it’s worth bargaining early to adopt anything like it.

Guild leaders have spent several months looking into this matter and believe, given the situation, it is the right thing to do. Do not interpret this to mean that we think it’s a good idea to pay more for health insurance. We don’t like the idea. But we have weighed the pros and cons of all the choices that confront us. In the end, the strategy we are exploring seemed the wisest one to pursue.

There are many things to consider as we move forward, and we will communicate the issues in greater detail. We will also give members an opportunity to talk with Guild leaders and ask questions about this plan.
The process for approving early negotiations started with the union’s Executive Committee, which met Thursday and voted to recommend the local bargain this year instead of next year.

The Executive Committee also recommended that Henry Davis, President Pat Gormley, Jim Heaney, Felice McMillion, and Guild staff Tammy Turnbull and Marian Needham be named to the bargaining team, with Davis serving as chairman. The team would report back to the Executive Committee on a regular basis.

The next step is the Guild’s third-quarter regular membership meeting, which has been moved up to Aug. 4. Membership will have an opportunity to ask questions about the plan and vote on whether to reopen negotiations early. The meeting will be at 5:30 p.m. Aug. 4 in The News auditorium.