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County union tries to avoid stumbles in contract talks

AFSCME Local 88 focuses on keeping health benefits intact
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Against a nationwide backdrop of contentious public-employee negotiations, the biggest union representing Multnomah County workers is entering labor talks in a defensive mode, hoping to protect health and pension benefits from cutbacks.

'We know that it's a tough economic year,' says Michael Hanna, president of Local 88 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents 3,000 workers, 2,800 of them county employees. 'I do think people are realistic about the state of the economy and the state and the county's budget.'

A survey of Local 88 members found half were open to negotiating something akin to the 2009 deal, Hanna says, when the union agreed to a wage freeze in exchange for protecting about 100 county jobs. In the survey, an equal number of members were opposed to the idea.

'If you were asking about (pension) and health benefits, I think it would be a different question,' he says.

Retaining current health insurance benefits is the union's top priority, Hanna says. 'People are not going to budge on that.'

Members now pay a modest amount toward their health premiums, plus copays, depending on the health plan they choose.

The union is nervous about an initial bargaining proposal to state of Oregon workers that would end the '6 percent pickup,' an agreement negotiated three decades ago that obligated the state to pay the employee share toward the Public Employees Retirement System costs, in lieu of a wage increase. That equals 6 percent of worker pay. When the state agreed to pick up the employee contribution, Multnomah County and most other local government jurisdictions followed suit.

Local 88's second-highest priority in collective bargaining talks is keeping the status quo on PERS, Hanna says.

But the state labor talks may set the standard there.

'I think it kind of depends on what happens with the state on PERS,' he says. 'That definitely has our members worried.'

In contrast to the recent speedy collective bargaining talks between Portland Public Schools and the Portland Association of Teachers, county labor talks are proceeding slowly, with meetings scheduled through June. The current contract expires July 1.

Dave Austin, communications director for Multnomah County Chair Jeff Cogen, declined to comment on the county's goals for collective bargaining, and wouldn't authorize interviews with county management.