New Jersey privatization plan protested; union offers to cut staff, freeze wages to stop utility authority

Friday, April 6, 2001

Staff Writer

HACKENSACK -- About 70 employees of Bergen County's wastewater disposal authority Thursday protested the proposed privatization of their jobs, even as the agency's largest union revealed it is negotiating concessions in hopes of keeping its workers on the public payroll.

If ultimately signed, the union contract would mean the loss of about 35 jobs and a wage freeze, said Albert Dealmagro, president of Local 534 of the Utility Workers Union of America.

In the latest of several protests, Dealmagro and other union members circled outside the Bergen County Courthouse about 3 p.m., carrying signs that read: "No To Privatization."

The union opposes the plan by County Executive William "Pat" Schuber to get a private manager to run the Bergen County Utilities Authority's sewage disposal operation, a move he says would save taxpayers money. The agency's trash disposal operations are not involved in the privatization effort.

Union officials say the wastewater proposal would impair the operation and could lead to the contamination of area drinking water.

The privatization is part of a two-pronged approach by the BCUA to improve the agency's efficiency. Agency officials are in final talks with Operations Management International of Colorado over the cost of having the firm run the sewage operation. In addition, the BCUA is seeking to cut operating costs and evaluate whether it could improve efficiency if it continues to run its wastewater facilities.

The BCUA board will then decide which of the two management methods is cheaper.

With this in mind, the union has offered the BCUA significant concessions in talks to replace the employment contract that expired at the end of last year, Dealmagro said.

The union has offered to accept a wage freeze for the first two years of the five-year contract, Dealmagro said. As part of the deal, the union also has agreed not to oppose the layoff of about 35 members, reducing its ranks to 100 employees.

Dealmagro said there is no agreement by the BCUA to halt privatization if the union makes those concessions.

"There is no linkage," Dealmagro said. "But we hope it has an effect" in reducing the cost of operating the facility enough that privatization is not necessary, he said.