Vol XIl, Issue 19 TNG/CWA Local 31041 March 20, 2001

  • Company agrees to define limits of changes it can make in health plans during term of a contract.

  • Words "substantially equivalent" in describing replacement plans had been a stumbling block.

  • Guild accepts definition of "essentially equal in value and coverage."

  • Agreement does not resolve dispute about what kind of medical plans should be provided in a new contract.

  • No new bargaining sessions scheduled.

  • Pension, Prepublishing Dept., pay, parking and other issues still on table.

Marking the first bargaining progress in months, the Guild and the company have agreed on language that spells out limits on what changes the company can make in medical insurance plans while a Guild contract is in force.

The agreement, which came in an exchange of letters that followed the Feb. 14 negotiation session, showed movement on both sides, and Guild officials said they hoped that this would lead to further progress in negotiations.

However, no new bargaining meetings have been scheduled.

Potential mid-contract changes in medical plans have been a key stumbling block in negotiations.

Currently, the contract allows the company to switch to plans that are "equivalent" to those health benefits that are listed in the contract.

But in its proposal for a new contract, the company added subtle, but important new wording, saying that it wanted to be able to be able to switch to medical plans that are "substantially equivalent'' to those described in the contract.

Guild negotiators worried that might make it possible for the company to come up with a mid-term medical plan that would have worse benefits or added costs - either of which would undermine what had been worked out in negotiations.
So for more than a year, the Guild has been pressing the company for a definition of what it meant by "substantially equivalent.'' But the company steadfastly had refused to provide a definition.

However, in a letter Feb. 28, responding to inquiries the Guild had made during the Feb. 14 negotiating session, the company at last provided a detailed explanation, one that the Guild leaders feel would protect members from dangerous changes in medical plans.

"…we would mean that a substantially equivalent plan would be one not exactly the same as the one it was replacing but one which would be essentially equal in value and coverage,'' wrote Thomas J. McDonough, the Journal's human resources director.

The Guild negotiating team met March 12 to discuss whether the company's willingness to define its terms - and the language that it provided - met the union's goals, and decided that it did. Excessive changes in medical coverage could be challenged in arbitration, they decided.

Yesterday, the Executive Board took a look and came to the same conclusion. Tim Schick, the Guild administrator, then wrote to McDonough that the Guild accepted the use of the term, and has modified its proposal to match the company's language.

WHILE THE MOVES show an important narrowing of the gap between the two sides, the letters between management and the Guild reflected the bitterness that underlies the negotiations, which are more than a year old and which remain far from resolved.

In its letter, the company referred the union to Webster's New Twentieth Century Dictionary to explain what the words meant. And it spurned a request by the Guild to provide examples of what the company had in mind.
"We are not prepared to present further 'examples' as you requested, since we believe your request is in fact argumentative and would ask us to address hypotheticals,'' McDonough said.

And in his notice to the company of agreement on the language, Schick pointed out how long the union has been kept waiting on such a simple, but crucial, matter.

"Please note that the Guild first asked the company to define this term on Nov. 12, 1999," Schick said. "Had this explanation been provided then, months of dispute on this issue could have been avoided."
Schick ended with a note that the union is prepared to meet to discuss the issue.

THIS AGREEMENT does not resolve the overall disagreement between the Guild and the company over what specific medical plans should be in a new contract.

The company has proposed three medical plans, plus a new dental program, all of which are different from those in the expired contract. The Guild's contract proposal would add those plans, but also proposes a family of Blue Cross and Blue Shield plans, and it would continue the option of using the dental plan in the old contract.

Further, yesterday's agreement does not undo the wrongs committed by the company when it imposed new medical plans on the Guild at the beginning of 2000, a one-sided step the company took when negotiations had not been completed on that important issue.

In fact, the imposition of those medical plans - which are costing Guild workers more in premium co-payments, require higher user fees for doctors' visits and drugs and are less flexible than the older plans - is the subject of one of 30 unfair labor practices complaints against the company brought by the regional office of the National Labor Relations Board.

IT IS UNCLEAR whether agreement on the key language issue paves the way for more progress.

During the last negotiating session on Feb. 14 - the 18th session since negotiations began in October 1999 - the Guild made changes to five relatively minor sessions of its proposal, shifts meant to draw similar changes from the company.

"An avalanche begins with a snowflake,'' the Guild had said.
The company later sent the letter defining the medical plan language, but followed that with a harsher letter early in March, in which it refused to agree to schedule new negotiating dates because it said that the Guild wouldn't agree to various company demands.

The Guild replied that it remains willing to meet, and noted that it had made various and substantial changes in its negotiating position, while the company has refused to negotiate in good faith.

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