BARRE — It wasn’t the break-through session City Manager Steve Mackenzie was hoping for, but Wednesday’s closed-door bargaining session with unionized firefighters wasn’t cause for alarm either.
“We made progress,” Mackenzie said. “We’re down to the final dollars.”
Thus far, a settlement with firefighters has been elusive and the same can be said of ongoing negotiations with the city’s clerical and custodial staff.
Both bargaining units have been working under contracts that expired June 30, and with the contract covering unionized members of the city’s public works department set to lapse Dec. 31, Mackenzie’s collective bargaining calendar just got busier.
Negotiations with firefighters didn’t reach the point Wednesday whereby the two sides agreed to call in a mediator.
“We’re still talking,” Mackenzie said.
If there is an impasse in the offing it hasn’t yet arrived, but then neither has an agreement on key money issues, like wages and health insurance.
Mackenzie, who declined to discuss the details of negotiations, doesn’t sound concerned. He hinted heading into Wednesday’s session the two sides might be in a position to put the finishing touches on a tentative settlement next week. On Thursday, he didn’t rule out that possibility, but conceded another session might be needed.
“I think we’re getting there,” he said 11 sessions into a bargaining process that began when the two sides traded proposals on June 5.
But for a mutually agreed to summer respite the two sides have stuck to an every other week schedule since negotiations resumed Sept. 11. The fact negotiators will meet on back-to-back Wednesdays could be a positive sign.
“Both sides want to get this done,” Mackenzie said.
Meanwhile, Mackenzie is hoping to get negotiations with clerical and custodial staff back on track after the second prolonged pause since the two sides met to establish ground rules May 22. Settling on a schedule that could accommodate all participants has been a challenge, but the two sides are set to meet for the first time in more than a month next Thursday.
“Hopefully, we can get everybody in the room and see where we’re at,” Mackenzie said.
Now in the midst of preparing a budget for the coming fiscal year, Mackenzie is eager to wrap up negotiations for a contract year that started more than four months ago.
Next week’s bargaining sessions come even as negotiations with public works employees are getting underway. The negotiating teams met to exchange proposals last Thursday and will meet for the first time to discuss them Nov. 21.
Mackenzie said two more Thursday bargaining sessions — Dec. 5 and Dec. 19 — have been scheduled before the current contract expires Dec. 31.
Only one of the city’s four labor unions — the one representing police officers and emergency dispatchers -isn’t currently negotiating a new contract.
The police union is working under the terms of a contract that runs through June 30, 2020. That agreement was finally ratified in January — more than six months after the previous contract had lapsed.
Among other things, the police contract, significantly altered the salary schedule and eliminated seniority-based “longevity payments” that under the old agreement could add as much as $50 a week — $2,600 a year — to employees’ paychecks. It also included a first-time requirement that police officers and emergency dispatchers pay a small portion of their health insurance premiums. Those employees are now paying 2.5% of their premiums. That figure will double to 5% on Jan. 1, 2020.