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Portland Union Calls EMS Personnel Nonsensical

PORTLAND, Ore.-- When union leaders heave insults, workers aren t the usual target.

But the union representing about 500 Portland-area paramedics and emergency medical technicians labeled its members nonsensical, unrealistic and out of touch with reality when it abruptly disowned the bargaining unit last month, days before members were to vote on a contract with their employer, American Medical Response.

The strange turn of events has left the bargaining unit badly damaged. Some members fear union representation could come to an end, while some want to be rid of unions. Others express hope of joining the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

American Medical Response is the exclusive provider of ambulance services across five counties: Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington in Oregon; and Clark and Cowlitz in Washington.

As it stands, workers have split into at least four factions, some wanting to join the Teamsters, others favoring two different unions. Some employees are fed up with unions.

Workers will decide which path to follow in an election run by the National Labor Relations Board, with votes due to be counted Dec. 5.

The Portland-area ambulance workers have changed unions four times since the early 1990s. The latest union, the National Emergency Medical Services Association, or NEMSA, lasted less than two years.

Bitter union infighting began in June, after members rejected a tentative contract negotiated on their behalf by NEMSA. Torren Colcord, president of the California-based union, riled members when he insisted their demands were unreasonable.

After the union negotiated a second tentative agreement, Colcord held a meeting in August and threatened to walk away from the bargaining unit if members did not vote to accept it, says paramedic Charles Savoie and several others in the union.

Outraged members in Clark County started a petition to leave NEMSA and join the Teamsters.

Colcord said the tentative agreement would give most employees a 26 percent wage increase over three years. Workers who opposed the contract said most would get lesser raises and wages would remain far behind those in other West Coast cities.

A vote count on the tentative agreement was set for Sept. 27, but the national union pulled out Sept. 24 rather than see its work rejected.

Colcord declined to return phone calls. In a written statements to union members and news reporters, Colcord said the bargaining unit had insisted on unrealistic demands that no union could achieve.

Further fanning the flames, the statement listed such demands as big-screen plasma televisions at ambulance stations and paid bereavement leave for the death of a pet.

Union members say those were joke responses from a survey of members before the union began bargaining. Those who opposed the second tentative agreement greatly objected to paying more for health care.

The health insurance was a huge step back, says paramedic Ron Basham.

Savoie said members have had sound reasons to switch unions. The workers have long sought to be affiliated with a medical union, he said, after starting with one representing mostly bus drivers. After forming a short-lived local paramedic union, the group returned to the Amalgamated Transit Union. When NEMSA formed in 2004, Savoie said it seemed to fit the group s long-term goal of building a national union for emergency medical professionals.

Now, jilted by NEMSA and left without a contract, some employees say American Medical Response, or AMR, has seized on the chance to undermine union representation. The company insists that s not the case.

They were abandoned by their union, we don t want them to feel abandoned, said Lucy Drum, a spokeswoman for AMR, a unit of publicly traded, Colorado-based Emergency Medical Services Corp.

The day after the union meltdown, the company notified workers that they would receive a 5 percent pay raise effective immediately.

In addition, we will immediately stop dues deductions from your paychecks, the company said in a memo, which pro-union employees interpret as having an anti-union slant.

Savoie said the company also imposed the cost increases for health coverage that workers opposed overwhelmingly in the first tentative agreement. He said the company later took a step toward splitting the bargaining unit in two, in a request for a hearing before the National Labor Relations Board.

Drum said the company proposed splitting the bargaining unit as a possible way to bring more harmony.

The company soon dropped the proposal, Drum said, because in-house labor relations staff determined the NLRB would not approve it.

Regarding the health plan changes, Drum said, If another union is elected, we d have an opportunity to revisit it.

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