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400 OPEIU Local 212-Represented Workers At BlueCross BlueShield Won’t Be Allowed To Return To Their Jobs If A New Contract Is Not Bargained By The End Of April, So Says A Company Spokesman On A Recorded Tape Line That Updates Negotiations

Despite As Much As 20% Of BlueCross BlueShield’s Overall WNY Business Coming From Organized Labor, Thomas Fentner - Senior VP/Human Resources – Voices Harsh Stance/Federal Mediator To Begin Sitting In On Ongoing Talks Beginning Today

Published Tuesday, April 12, 2011 10:00 am
by Tom Campbell/Editor-Publisher

(BUFFALO) – In a taped message offered to management representatives in order to update them on current contract negotiations with the Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU), BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York says it will not allow its 400 Union-Represented Employees to return to their jobs if a new contract isn’t bargained and ratified by the end of April, has learned.

On the tape, an individual identifying himself as Thomas Fentner, BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York’s Senior Vice President/Human Resources & Administrative Services, made it plainly clear that if a new contract is not in place by April 25th - when the current three-year contract expires - the 400 Union Workers will be locked out. was made aware of the management message via e-mail by an anonymous source, who provided Your Regional, On-Line Labor Newspaper with the tape-line’s telephone number.  The e-mailer did not provide their name, saying they feared retribution from the company if identified.

“We have advised the Union the company will not extend the expiration date of the contract and will not allow (those Union) employees to work without a contract,” Fentner says on the tape.  He goes on to say that BlueCross BlueShield has “made it clear to the Union what must be in the final contract.”  As many as 35 bargaining proposals are still on the table, he states.  In addition, Fentner said on the tape that BlueCross BlueShield - which is operated regionally by HealthNow New York, Inc. - has also provided the Union with “data on compensation and benefits of similar jobs in the Western New York market.”

Reacting to Fentner’s taped comments, OPEIU Local 212 Business Representative Deana Fox - who also serves as Recording Secretary of the Western New York AFL-CIO Area Labor Federation - tells “It’s a brazen statement when you’re negotiating a contract.  It doesn’t show much good faith when you talk about locking out your employees.  What does that say about the respect they have for their employees that they can just flip the switch off and say, ‘We don’t need you anymore?’”

Asked whether the Health Care Company might be placing the business it garners from the Western New York Labor Community in jeopardy by taking such a tack negotiating with its OPEIU Local 212-Represented Members, Fox answered: “They (BlueCross BlueShield) say that’s all they care about (their business with area Unions), but that they need to be competitive where they are free to do what they want with a new contract.  They’re talking out of both sides of their mouth.”

In an April 3rd Labor News Story published by, Fox told Your Regional, On-Line Labor Newspaper that there were several sticking points in negotiations, including protective language covering layoffs, seniority and employee movement within the company that employs a total of 1,700 workers at its sprawling West Genesee Street headquarters in Downtown Buffalo. 

“They’ve come up with new performance standards and then they alter those standards to change (employee) goals.  Obviously this has a major impact on their employees.  We’ve had a number of disputes with BlueCross BlueShield over the past year as the Union has not been notified of a number of these changes.  Subsequently, we’ve had to grieve them out,” she said.

Unbelievably, Health Care Coverage is another area of contention, Fox said. 

“They want to offer (Union-Represented Employees) the same Health Care Coverage they offer their non-Union employees and then be given the right to change it from time to time.  And these are not ‘little tweaks.’  In the past we’ve looked to work with them, but we’ve been bitten (by that decision),” said Fox, who adds the 400 BlueCross BlueShield Employees represented by OPEIU Local 212 fall under as many as 25 individual job titles. 

Fox, meanwhile, noted during her latest interview with “I haven’t once talked about economic issues (such as wages).  This is about job security.”

“Right now, we’re really far apart as the employer has stated it is ‘critically important’ to have the right to do what it wants when it comes to having the ability to arbitrarily change a number of employee standards, including performance standards,” said Fox, who acknowledged the involvement of a Federal Mediator will begin today (Tuesday/April 13th) when bargaining with BlueCross BlueShield resumes.

“Since our first day of bargaining the Union has indicated we are prepared to meet for negotiations with the company on any date and time. At this point we have five full days and one half-day session (remaining that have been) scheduled,” OPEIU Local 212 Representatives said in a message distributed to BlueCross BlueShield’s Union-Represented Workers.  Both sides have been meeting twice a week for a total of more than 13 bargaining sessions to date.  

“(OPEIU Local 212) knows these are changing times in the Health Care Industry and with major Health Care Reform, but we do want to be ‘part of the solution,’” Fox said.  “It ‘is’ in the best interest of our Union that BlueCross BlueShield survives and thrives and we’re not getting any credit at all for that.  Every Union knows that if there’s no company – there’s no jobs.”

Meanwhile, the top 10 officers of BlueCross BlueShield – starting with President & CEO Alphonso O’Neil-White, who made $1.8 million in compensation in 2010 – combine to make $6.6 million “while working for a non-profit,” Fox pointed out.  “That pays the salary for about one-hundred-and-fifty of our members,” said Fox – adding that Fentner himself was compensated to the tune of $571,142.

The Buffalo News just reported that CEOs at a number of Buffalo-area not-for-profits earned “hefty wages” in 2010, and that those local executives - “big and small” – “did well, with some receiving salary hikes despite a drop in earnings.”  One of those listed was BlueCross BlueShield/HealthNow’s President Alphonso O’Neil-White, whose pay, The News reported, rose 11% in 2010, despite the Health Care Company’s surpluses falling 15% to $52.7 million on a 2.3% drop in revenues to $2.4 billion.

The individual who made aware of the taped management message at BlueCross Blue Shield was concerned about a number of areas that were being bargained, including: Elimination of shifts; Elimination of flex-time schedules; Elimination of employees’ ability to use seniority to protect their employment during layoff and substitute with performance criteria, which they have the unfettered right to choose and change at will; The use of temporary agency employees whenever they want; Sub-contracting out of any work at any time without restriction or discussion; The elimination of restrictions on mandatory overtime; The elimination of having the option to take a 60-minute lunch; and The elimination of restrictions on the company’s use of part-time employees.

“These proposals show a true lack of respect for the importance of the work that (Union-Represented Employees) do and we continue to challenge these attacks at the bargaining table,” the e-mailer wrote.

Employee morale, meanwhile, is not high at BlueCross BlueShield, according to the results of a 2009 Internal Employment Survey, Fox told last week. 

“Eighty-one-percent of the respondents, Union Members, said they did not have confidence in the company’s leadership to take (the company) in the right direction.  That was a major concern.  Many of the four-hundred Union Employees at BlueCross BlueShield – ninety-percent who are women, another twenty-five percent who are African-Americans and who all have an average of 17 years on the job – used to be very proud of where they worked,” she said.

OPEIU Local 212 represents 700 members across Western New York that work for a number of area employers, including: BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York; The Cornerstone Community Federal Credit Union in Lockport; The Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo; a number of other local credit unions and at some area Labor Unions.


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