SSA fights union-backed arbitration bill
For the Steamship Authority (SSA), a union-backed bill quietly making its way through the Senate is a legislative torpedo aimed at management's ability to institute long-overdue reforms and control costs and fares.
Not so, said the bills' chief sponsor, Senator Marc R. Pacheco of Taunton who is known for his unequivocal support of unions. He sees the legislation as a fair means to end a labor dispute that has left the Marine Engineering Beneficial Association (MEBA) without a contract for more than three years and protect boatline employee benefits.
MEBA, which represents marine engineers and unlicensed vessel employees, and management have been engaged in sometimes bitter negotiations. Because the union is prohibited by law from striking, it sought the help of state legislators.
The legislation known as Senate bill 2459 [available here] would amend the SSA's enabling legislation by inserting language that declares that authority and union representatives must engage the services of a single state arbitrator when both sides are engaged in an impasse of more than 45 days in a dispute over wages, hours, and conditions of employment.
The Senate involvement began last spring when Senator Pacheco filed two bills targeting the SSA, one requiring binding arbitration and another that would have added two state appointees to the SSA board, eliminating the islands' majority control.
Both bills were given little likelihood of survival by SSA watchers and disappeared from public view among the hundreds of bills filed last year. But on March 29 "An act relative to binding arbitration," a redraft of the original bill, went to the committee on public service and was referred favorably the same day to Senate Ways and Means. On April 27, the bill was discharged to the Ethics and Rules, where it now sits awaiting action.
The favorable passage through two Senate committees of a bill thought to be dead in the water caught the SSA off guard. This week, Wayne Lamson, the circumspect general manager of the boatline, fired back publicly.
On Monday Mr. Lamson detailed the boatline's objections to the bill and efforts to reach agreement with the union in a cover letter and ten-page position statement [available here] distributed to Cape and Island media outlets.
In his cover letter, Mr. Lamson said that over the past two years, the Authority has been successful in reaching six new collective bargaining agreements with all but one of its unions, MEBA, which is behind Senate Bill No. 2459.
He wrote that "this dangerous legislation" would entirely deprive the Islands of their control over the most significant aspects of the Authority's operations and finances but the Legislature had made no effort to solicit comment from local officials or provide the SSA with an opportunity to comment.
Mr. Lamson said "management has been attempting to address several longstanding issues aimed at improving productivity, operational efficiencies and employee discipline, and reducing overtime and premium pay abuses resulting from contract restrictions ... If Senate Bill No. 2459 becomes law, MEBA knows that it will never have to agree to any of the long overdue reforms the Authority is seeking."
Mr. Lamson said MEBA has refused a request that marine engineers contribute 5 percent to the cost of premiums on their family health insurance plan. The union also continues to insist on so-called "premium pay" for marine engineers, extra payments for employees who perform duties outside their specific assignments within their regular workday, and now make $36 per hour, and premium pay for unlicensed vessel employees "which in some instances results in an employee receiving $50 per hour for work within his or her regular workday."
Last December, following the union's unanimous rejection of the SSA's latest offer, Bill Campbell, SSA MEBA union representative, said that after almost three years without a pay increase, management asked union members to accept a contract that, when taken as a whole, would amount to a pay cut.
Speaking from Boston yesterday, Mr. Campbell said the union is supporting the legislation in an attempt to get the SSA "to bargain in good faith and level the playing field" because it is barred from striking. He said he had not received a copy of the SSA position paper.
Mr. Campbell said the SSA was attempting to negotiate the contract in the press while in federal and state mediation with the union. "That is a legally questionable approach," he said.
Mr. Campbell said that if the SSA thinks its current contract platform is justified they should be welcoming the legislation. "If they believe their rates will go up or their costs will go up for the authority because of the legislation they're admitting that their platform is unreasonable to any third party arbitrator."
Regarding the premium pay issue cited by the SSA as an example of MEBA's unreasonableness, Mr. Campbell said premium pay is very common in the marine industry and anything in the current contract was the result of collective bargaining. "Anything that we have gotten in the past in that contract," he said, "something's been given up."
This week, Marc Hanover of Oak Bluffs, Vineyard SSA member, said that Island ratepayers could ultimately face higher fares and lose control of the board. "My fear is that anything the state gets involved in, the costs are going to skyrocket," he said. "We are going to be involved in binding arbitration with these guys and I am concerned about the costs. This is not a time to not be able to control or budget and our expenses."
Mr. Hanover said the notion that the SSA has not been bargaining in good faith is, "utterly ridiculous. We would like to get it resolved," he said. "We have reached agreements with six other unions in the last two years and we have been unable to reach an agreement with this union in three years."
Mr. Hanover said MEBA representatives have cancelled 17 meetings. In contrast, the SSA has not canceled one. "That does not exactly reflect an effort to get it resolved," he said, noting that SSA MEBA members remain among the highest paid workers in the marine transportation industry.
Having been unsuccessful at the bargaining table in getting what they want, Mr. Hanover said, the union is attempting an end run around management, which has the full backing of the board.
Falmouth SSA member and board chairman Robert Marshall agreed. "There is no question that we as a board are consistent with management's views that this legislation would not be in the best interests of the Steamship Authority and our customers," he said.
Yesterday evening Mr. Hanover and Mr. Lamson were scheduled to meet with the Dukes County Commissioners to discuss the bill and its possible ramifications.
Island officials can count on the support of Cape and Islands Senator Robert O'Leary in their fight. "I am opposed to the bill," said Senator O'Leary in a telephone call from the statehouse Tuesday. "I think there is a problem with respect to the negotiations between management and the union and this to me appears to be an effort to shift the venue from there to here, and I don't think that is appropriate."
Senator O'Leary said that he does not agree with Senator Pacheco that binding arbitration is the solution to the current labor issue. Only two entities within state government, the state police and the MBTA, are currently entitled to binding arbitration.
"Virtually every other area of state and local government, police and fire across the Commonwealth, negotiate out their contracts," said Mr. O'Leary. "And there is a responsibility on the part of management and the unions to do just that."
Mr. O'Leary said he would speak against the bill should it emerge from the committee or end up as an amendment to another bill, such as the state budget, bypassing the committee route he said. "I will be watching it carefully," he said. "I have talked to the union, they know how I feel and I have talked to my colleagues as well."
One Senator he has yet to speak with is Senator Pacheco, the author of the so-called Pacheco bill, a 1993 union-backed law that requires the state to prove cost savings before contracting with private companies to provide services otherwise provided by state employees.
In a conversation with The Times Tuesday from his Boston office, Mr. Pacheco said the SSA and employees were aware of the legislation, and he dismissed the notion that the bill's process was closed simply because Islanders may have been unaware of it. He said that he decided to act in the best interests of the public to resolve a labor dispute that has gone on too many years, with probably enough blame to go around on both sides. Binding arbitration would put the dispute in the hands of an unbiased, independent individual who would be able to consider all factors, he said.
Mr. Pacheco said that unlike the private sector, SSA employees do not have the ability to strike. "It doesn't mean," he said, "that the Steamship Authority should have the ability to then exploit the workers who work for them."
Asked why a senator from Taunton decided to become involved in an SSA issue, Mr. Pacheco said, "It's called economic justice. And economic justice issues are issues that impact people everywhere, no matter where they are."