News

Union finally has deal with utility district

By PHILIP PALERMO

The Mirror

After more than a year of working without a contract, a group of union employees have reached an agreement with Lakehaven Utility District.

The members of International Union of Operating Engineers had been bargaining with the district for a new contract since 2004.

Previous contract proposals had been rejected by union members, who have been working without a contract since December 2004.

Union officials cited reductions in sick leave, overtime pay and other factors in rejecting earlier proposals.

District officials announced Tuesday that the new agreement includes an annual step increase of 2.5 percent and 80 percent of the cost of living increase for district employees with salaries below the top of their salary range. Employees earning top salaries will receive 100 percent of the cost of living increase.

Other features of the new contract include:

• 28 days of paid vacation per year for employees with more than 10 years of service.

• 22 days of vacation per year for employees with between five and 10 years of service.

• 16 days of vacation for new employees.

The new agreement affects the approximately 60 union members working in field and wastewater treatment plant operations for the district.

“Although negotiations certainly lasted longer than expected, it is never easy to make changes in a long-standing benefit program,” said Lakehaven Commissioner Bev Tweedle.

Bruce Heniken, business representative for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 286, said part of the reason for the long negotiations were demands by the district.

“I think it took entirely too long, but the district had a lot of things they wanted,” Heniken said. “We didn’t go in asking much more than status quo.”

The new agreement may cap a busy period for the district, which has been involved in contract negotiations with two unions and experienced labor unrest during the past several months.

Last summer, more than 50 employees signed a letter of no-confidence in the district’s general manager, Don Perry.

In January, the district reached a contract agreement with its technical and clerical workers, who are members of Washington State Council of County and City Employees.

Steve Pritchett, the district’s general counsel, said while the hope is for quick negotiations, hammering out the details can take time.

“There’s always a desire to do it fairly expeditiously, but it’s not always that easy to do,” he said.

Pritchett said coming to an agreement on a contract involved eliminating differences between the two sides.

“With any contract, when you’re negotiating, there’s a heavy focus on the overall wage and benefit package,” he said. “It’s sort of a process of going back and forth.”

That process, Heniken said, took longer with the district than it did with other employers. Lakehaven, he said, was among the most aggressive employers he has worked with. Since negotiations with the district began in late 2004, Heniken said, he’s opened and settled negotiations with five other employers.

“It took a long time to get there” with Lakehaven, he said.

The contract has been signed by three of the district’s five commissioners and is awaiting the signature of the remaining members, who were out of town, according to Heniken.

The new contract expires at the end of 2007. By that time, contract negotiations may have begun anew.

Pritchett said both sides may look back at the past few months when it comes time for a new contract.

“I think this will give the district and the employees something to build on,” he said.

The district provides water and sewer service to approximately 112,000 people in an area of about 35 square miles, including most of Federal Way and small portions of Des Moines, Auburn, Pacific, Tacoma and Milton.

Staff writer Philip Palermo: 925-5565, ppalermo@fedwaymirror.com

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