Union leaders urge Port Authority officials to negotiate a vaccine mandate
When Port Authority’s vaccine mandate takes effect on Wednesday, the agency anticipates that so many employees will be placed on leave that up to 20% of trips will be out of service. But leaders of an employee union say there’s an easy way for the agency to avoid disruptions as well as the loss of good employees: negotiate with union leaders.
“That’s all we’re asking,” said Ross Nicotero, business agent and president of Local 85 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents some 2,300 Port Authority employees. “If they would come to the table and bargain I would stay here as long as it takes til it gets done.”
Port Authority officials did not respond to questions, but spokesperson Adam Brandolph said union officials took their concerns to court and lost.
“If union leadership wants to keep its members safe, it would be advocating for them to be vaccinated.”
Under a policy announced in January, Port Authority required all employees to be fully vaccinated by March 15 or face disciplinary consequences. In February, Local 85 asked an Allegheny County court to pause the mandate, but a judge ruled last week that the potential harm COVID posed to the public outweighed the union’s concerns about vaccination, and allowed the mandate to proceed.
Nicotero said he and his family are vaccinated, and members of Local 85 are encouraged to get vaccinated, but “we respect everybody’s opinion.”
Nicotero said the mandate is the only part of the agency’s and union’s joint COVID-19 pandemic response that has not been the subject of negotiation. Over nearly two years, leaders of both organizations have added 12 supplements to union members’ collective bargaining agreement.
That agreement is “the Bible of a union worker,” Nicotero said. “And [the vaccination requirement is] not in there.”
Transit workers in other cities have been given the option to provide a weekly negative COVID-19 test in lieu of vaccination, he said. If the Port Authority were to sit down for talks, that’s an alternative the union would be willing to discuss, Nicotero said.
In court filings, the Port Authority argued that state law tasks it with protecting the public interest, and so they are not required to negotiate the vaccine requirement as part of the collective bargaining agreement.
The transit agency says that roughly 500 transit workers remain unvaccinated, but Nicotero said the number is closer to 300. Some of his members have at least one dose of the vaccine, he said. Those who do not will be placed on leave, with pay, starting on Wednesday, while the agency schedules a disciplinary hearing.
Nicotero said he believes Local 85 will succeed with a complaint filed under state labor law, “but by the time we get there, a lot of good people here at Port Authority will be terminated.”
Under Port Authority’s policy, employees face consequences that could include being fired, but it’s not clear whether termination is a given.
Nicotero said the Port Authority is already short about 150 operators and skilled mechanics, and can’t afford to lose any more.