Barre in mediation with fire, ambulance services
BARRE — Representatives of the city and its fire and ambulance department recently dialed the collective bargaining equivalent of 911 — summoning a federal mediator both sides hope can help revive stalled negotiations involving a lapsed labor contract.
The contract expired in June and talks broke off late last month, prompting both sides to call for the mediator, who is scheduled to respond to Barre today.
The open-ended mediation session is set to start at noon, according to City Manager Steve Mackenzie, who said talks haven’t progressed to the point where financial aspects are in dispute.
“It’s not money issues,” said Mackenzie, who declined to elaborate.
“That doesn’t mean there couldn’t be money issues,” he hastily added. “But we’re not there yet.”
Where they are is stuck and hoping a nudge from a neutral third party can get negotiations back on track.
“We’ll go as long as we need to,” Mackenzie said. “I’m hopeful we can find some common ground.”
If the two sides are able to make headway, and perhaps even reach a tentative settlement, it will be due in part to the assistance of Cynthia Jeffries.
Jeffries, a commissioner with the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, will serve as the go-between in a process that is different from face-to-face negotiations. Jeffries will shuttle proposals and counter-proposals between the two sides in an attempt to bridge the divide that has existed since talks broke off.
Negotiations with the 17-member union bargaining unit began shortly before the previous contract expired. The two sides have met several times.
Union firefighters have been working under the terms of the old contract for more than six months. That one-year deal included a “wage freeze,” though eligible firefighters were awarded annual “step increases.”
Firefighters agreed to the one-year wage freeze on the heels of a five-year contract that included raises totaling 17 percent in their hourly wages — 3 percent in each of the first three years and 4 percent in the final two.
City officials have sought over the years to delete contractual language that dictates the operation of the department, including minimum staffing requirements and call-back procedures. Those areas weren’t addressed in the last round of negotiations.
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