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June 20, 2013

City cuts ties with sewage workers

JOHNSTOWN — The jobs of city-employed union workers at Johnstown’s Dornick Point sewage treatment plant are on the line after Johnstown City Council action Wednesday.

Council voted not to renew an agreement with plant owner Johnstown Redevelopment Authority that maintained the workers under a contract with Unit 17 of United Steelworkers Local 2635. The agreement ends Dec. 31 – the same day the workers’ union contract expires.

The redevelopment authority has been reimbursing the city for the union workers’ wages and benefits since the controversial 2004 sale of the plant to the authority. At that time, the agreement was put in place to protect the union workers’ jobs and see that a skilled workforce remained at Dornick Point, authority Solicitor William G. Barbin said.

The authority could look into negotiating a new contract with the union, city Solicitor David Andrews said.

“The city gave notice that they are giving the employees back to the redevelopment authority,” Andrews said. “It will be up to the redevelopment authority to bargain a new contract.”

But the city can’t require that the authority hire the same workers or that it continue union representation, Barbin said.

“The (authority) board is going to have to sit down and think of what is best for our rate-payers,” Barbin said. “Are we going to hire all the people the city employed?”

Then there are the back-office costs for payroll and other human resources work, he added.

“It doesn’t necessarily exclude the union,” Barbin said, explaining it will be up to the workers who are ultimately hired as employees of the authority.

Andrews said the change recognizes the existing reality. The employees are now supervised by redevelopment authority administrators.

“The city is essentially acting as a personnel agency, which is not the role of the city,” he said.

Union local President Craig Cernic said he was surprised by the action, and was upset that he heard about it from The Tribune-Democrat reporter.

“I am shocked that this came up,” Cernic said. “Nobody came to me. I don’t know how they could do something like that without contacting the union.”

The contract stipulates that union members work for whoever owns the treatment plant, Cernic said.

Msgr. Raymond Balta, authority chairman, said he has not received the notification.

“I didn’t know it was going to happen,” Balta said, deferring further comment until he had a chance to review the action with Barbin.

There was no discussion at Wednesday’s City Council meeting about what prompted the action, and council’s liaison to the authority had little to add. Council member Peter Vizza would not say why he voted to terminate the agreement.

“I have to run that past the solicitor,” Vizza said. “We had an executive session and I can’t talk about what was said there. All I can say is that it is in the best interest of the city.”

The union locked horns with the redevelopment authority in December when the board outsourced union jobs in the Johnstown Regional Sewage office on Main Street to Software Systems Inc. The Allegheny County firm was awarded the sewer billing system contract.

After a grievance was filed, the three workers were reassigned to other sewer-related paperwork and provided with office space in the Public Safety Building.

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