Monday, November 23, 2009

Gibson County Union Busting

I am fond of Gibson County, Indiana. I was born and raised there in the small town Owensville. So, I'm troubled when I hear of political shenanigans there. It appears that the county commissioners, and likely the county council, faced with a $800,000 county budget shortfall in a recession, is taking the opportunity of the Teamsters Local 215 year-end contract expiration for some county employee members to pull some union-busting shenanigans in the contract re-negotiations. The latest shenanigan is probably an omen of things to come; perhaps concocted, half-baked reasons for layoffs. There is hanky-panky in Gibson County politics.

First is to get to know the list of characters in this tragedy-comedy. The Teamsters Local 215 represents county employees working in the courthouse, the ambulance drivers, highway department and solid waste department employees; perhaps one-half of the county's 200 employees. Jailhouse workers withdrew from the union in 2001 and several other county departments are non-union. For the past few years, county union employees have agreed to more paid days off rather than receive raises in pay. As all county employees are treated equally, both union and non-union employees receive the same pay and generally the same benefits, so non-union employees have benefited from union negotiations. Union employees are covered by Central States Management health insurance and non-union members are covered by Warren Steinborn & Associates health insurance.

John Dyer, a local insurance agent who also handles the county seat, Princeton's, city workers insurance needs is the county's official insurance agent, according to this Princeton Clarion article, and who provides the Warren Steinborn & Associates insurance policy to non-union employees. It is my understanding that he is not the agent for the Union's Central States policy. The article explains that the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center caused a cancellation of the county's first responder worker compensation insurance. Wow! That a terrorist attack in New York City can effect little ole Gibson County, that has a total population equal to one city block in New York, sounds more like an insurance scam than it does reasonably thought out insurance company policy. One can imagine the nice not-so-little commission Mr. Dyer receives from the city's and county's insurance premiums; where a single city insurance premium cost rose $40,000 from 2005 to 2007 . As Mr. Dyer provides the insurance to both city and county governments, he likely has little need for individual customers. My guess is that he's a wealthy man.

Next in the comedy are the County Board of Commissioners, Bob Townsend, the GOP Commissioner's President, and Commissioner members GOP Gerald Bledsoe and Democrat Don Whitehead. Townsend's was first “elected” to the Commission by a Gibson County Republican Central Committee caucus ,” which may sound odd to those not informed about rural politics in America, but he was selected “by caucus” to fill a Republican seat when the incumbent, Linda Hoover, took a new job and moved out of the county. Both Townsend and Bledsoe were reelected, according to the Clarion “incumbents” headline, by county-wide election in 2008, but there is no indication that Bledsoe held a seat on the County Board of Commissioners prior to the election. Townsend's platform appears to be typical Republican, saying, “I pay property taxes,” indicating that those taxes are too high, but I'm told they were elected because they were better known than their challengers. I can hear the voters now, “he ain't screwed up yet, so he's okay for another term.” Once you get in these offices, it's difficult to be removed.

Next is the Princeton Clarion newspaper with two reporters, News Editor Andrea Howe and staff writer Travis Neff reporting on news and politics. One thing I noticed when reading many of these reporters' articles on county events is that they mostly write what people say and generally describe what transpired, like taking minutes of a meeting. None of the articles noted any contradiction to any opinion quoted in the articles nor was there evidence of investigations into claims made by the news-making participants. My sense was that the Clarion is more like a secretary taking notes than investigative reporting.

Both the Board of Commissioners and the County Council are Republican controlled and it appears that their decisions are based on typical Republican philosophy and what one would expect; pro-business, pro-management, low taxes on businesses, anti-union and smaller government and a general inclination of opposition to what might be good for the ordinary citizen and employee. None of the Clarion reports appear to investigate reasons behind Republican or business lead initiatives. For example, when the Highway Machine Company applied for a tax benefit because it was making a $6 million plant expansion in Gibson County and the Republican controlled council said, “it's a quantum leap in technology” and promised to take the company's “benefit statement” under consideration even though the expansion was only adding ten jobs over the next four years, the Clarion-Andrea Howe article simply restated what she was given by the council and the company. There was no mention of how the tax break would effect the county. Would the county receive more from taxing the ten added jobs compared to the tax break given the company? How would the county revenue be effected? One would think that the Clarion would at least investigate or quote the content of the benefit statement submitted by the company. And, as additional information, in the interest of transparency , Howe could have noted any contributions made by the company to any council member campaign for office and how the respective members voted on the benefit statement.

But, I get the impression that there is about as much transparency in rural Gibson County politics as there is in an illegal local bar, back and dark, poker room. What I find odd about the Clarion's report on the Board of Commissioner's public meeting on Tuesday, October 20, 2009, where 100 union and non-union county employees showed up to question the Commissioners about a leaked draft of the proposed changes to the Union contract, is that there is no mention or quote about what the leaked draft said. I guess I'm just naturally suspicious. Anyone reading my blog knows that I am not a Republican; at least not as long as they are mislead by their current fanatically-religious, Sarah Palin-infatuated, ideological stance they can't seem to shake. Every employee who voiced an opinion or questioned the Commissioners said, basically, “we want to do our part, pay our share and be fair about our needs and the County's needs. But, we don't want to be screwed, either.” And it was clear that many thought, based on the leaked document, that they were getting screwed. When questioned about a proposed $1,200 lump sum payment to offset an increase in insurance premiums each employee would be paying, another employee said, “Council members told her that they preferred the lump sum payment [to defer extra insurance cost to the employees] instead of applying the money to the insurance” A Clarion follow up with Council members appears to be called for. A lump sum payment is taxed, while an employer insurance premium contribution is not.

Then there is the particularly contentious and threatening letter that union employees received from “The Commissioners” on November 20, 2009 with their paychecks. And, I hate to waste space in this blog, but I feel that it's necessary to quote the entirety of this letter, verbatim. It's a poorly written letter, but worse than that; it is coercive and threatening. I apologize if I've mistyped or omitted any part of the letter. Here's the letter:

To the Union Employees of Gibson County

As you know the Commissioners are currently considering changes in the health insurance plan that have the potential to benefit the employees and the County. The County would like to have the health insurance coverage be an election made by each employee. Currently the Union requires that all members be covered by an individual premium, regardless of whether the employee has other options for health insurance. At this time it is unclear that Central States, the supplier of the insurance for the Union, is willing to make the coverage an individual option. The advantage, in electing not to be covered, is the employee will not be required to pay the $100 per month for health insurance required in 2010.

In order for the County to explore this option, the County needs to receive some basic health information from all union members. Without this information, insurance companies will not give the County a quote for covering the union members. This information will not be viewed by anyone in County Government nor at the local ONB office. This will be sent to companies so that they can make an informed bid on our insurance.

The information is needed now in order to get quotes by the end of the year. The prices we get at that time will determine whether we stay with the Union insurance or change to a different plan. No decision has been made at this time.

If you elect not to return the health insurance form, the County will assume that you have chosen to not take the health insurance supplied by the County next year. You may be responsible for all of your health related costs. We hope that you fill out the form and that we can get some good quotes that can benefit the employees and the County. If you do not have a form, contact your department head or Wendy Williams. If you have not already returned the completed form, please place the completed form in a sealed envelope with your name on the envelope and return it by Nov. 30 to Wendy Williams in the Auditors Office.

Gibson County Commissioners”

First, the idea that each employee must submit “basic health information” is troublesome. It is also clear that the Commissioners plan to discontinue the Central States union plan if they can. The “information,” it turns out, is very detailed medical history information on the primary policy holder and any family members covered by the Union's Central States insurance policies. Name, Social Security Number, address, date of hire, date employed full time, dependents, medication, medical procedures and a number of other medical information items that is very private. The form each union member must submit is a “Perico Life Insurance Company Individual Underwriting Questionnaire” and you can see the whole form here (pdf) . At the bottom of the form is this statement:

I hereby authorize any physician, medical practitioner, hospital, clinic or other medical related facility, government agency, insurance company or other organization or person that has any records or knowledge of me or any family member for whom coverage is provided under the aforementioned Employee Benefit Plan, to give Perico Life Insurance Company or their representative(s) any such information. A photographic copy of this authorization shall be as valid as the original.”

Wow! And, then the employee signs the form and authorizes release of all medical information from any source that has the requested information. Is Perico's “representative” John Dyer and will he see the detailed, private information? I would say that coercing employees to provide private, detailed medical history or “ the County will assume that you have chosen to not take the health insurance supplied by the County next year” is illegal. This sounds like Union busting to me. In fact, this looks like a good complaint to file with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for violation of the The Health Insurance Portability andAccountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) Privacy Rule. Prosecution under that law could bring a heavy fine, perhaps jail time and a good excuse to recall a Commissioner or Council member or two.

It turns out that “ONB,” cited in the letter, stands for “Old National Bank” and that is the location for the Dyer and Swift Insurance Agency, of which John Dyer is a partner. Nothing tweaks my senses like the smell of a rat, and I'm beginning to smell at least one and maybe more that probably amounts to a conflict of interest dealing with the so-called “county insurance agent.”

The Union didn't waste much time responding. Here's the Union response:

Dear Commissioner Townsend:

We are in receipt of a copy of your letter to the Union-represented employees which was attached to their paychecks November 20, 2009.

It is the position of Local 215 that an employee's choice of whether to participate in the census, so the County can “shop” for insurance, is voluntary. Any employee suffering adverse consequences as a result of failure to respond will be vigorously defended in the appropriate forum by the Teamsters.

The substance of the letter aside, the assertion that an employee not responding will be “assume(d)” to be declining health insurance is laughable. Employees covered under the union contract are governed by its terms, not by some retributive threat issued by the Commissioners.

We have provided you with information that in 2008 the County paid $1,138,420.00 in contributions to the Central States Health and Welfare Fund and benefits were paid on behalf of county employees and their families in the amount of $1,415,612.00.

Also provided to you was that from January 1, 2009 through June 30, 2009 the County paid $587,420.00 in contributions to Central States and benefits were paid totaling $709,620.00. So in an eighteen (18) month period the employees of the County have received $399,392.00 more in claims paid on their behalf than Central States has received in contributions. The County and the members of Local 215 are benefiting from the fact that the premiums charged by Central States are “community related” and not determined by each individual employer's experience rating.

It is unfortunate that you do not seem to see the benefit in this to all parties involved.

We remind you that the health care problem is a real, present, and national problem, and it would behoove you to work together with the representative of your employees rather than antagonize the bargaining unit, in efforts to deal with the issue.

We look forward to further discussion on this subject on December 1, 2009.

Yours Truly,

//s// Charles A. Whobrey,

President and Business Manager”

The Union letter clears up a lot for me. First is that it is clear that the Teamsters is solidly behind protecting its members rights. For another thing, the “Central States,” as everyone calls it, is a trust fund for Teamsters, formed under the Taft-Hartley Act, which attempts to balance the needs of labor and management, although the Act is more pro-management than pro-labor. The Central States Fund is a “community based plan” rather than individually based, so it should be ultimately cheaper than an individual policy and the amounts paid by the plan compared to County contributions prove this out. If the cost of non-union insurance is investigated, I suspect that it is more expensive for both the employee and County than the union insurance is. If that were known, one would think that more employees would prefer union membership and insurance. That the Commissioners would not see the benefit of such a plan for union members and there appears to be a campaign for individual plans bought through agent John Dyer that makes that conflict of interest rat stench more potent. Someone should look into that. In fact, it may be unlawful under the Taft-Hartley Act to prevent union employees from choosing the Central States Fund as their health insurer. I'm sure the union attorney will know that and be able to defend any union employee who chooses the fund.

Like I said, there's hanky-panky brewing in Gibson County. I wish the employees, union and non-union, good luck in the negotiations even though non-union won't be allowed in. Non-union employees, however, will benefit from the union contract as they always have in regards to pay; but health benefits could be another issue. Unions are the primary reason workers of this country have reasonable pay and benefits at all; otherwise, we would still be receiving the slave wages of the nineteenth century and zilch benefits. I hope to hear more about this case, hopefully better reported, in the Clarion, but I suspect the Clarion will continue to be a secretary for County Republican management rather than the investigative reporters they should be.


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