By Elon Glucklich

The Bulletin

Deschutes County and its largest employee union have finalized a new, three-year contract.

The contract, signed Wednesday, includes annual cost-of-living increases and pay raises for long-tenured workers covered by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The contract covers 388 of Deschutes County’s roughly 1,000 employees, union officials said.

The contract could also set up an interesting union battle next year. Its terms include a promise to discuss a “fair share” policy. Under the policy, all county employees represented by AFSCME would be required to pay union dues, a departure from the current system in which union dues are optional.

Contract negotiations between the local AFSCME chapter and the county haven’t always gone smoothly. The last round of talks in 2011 saw the union and county file unfair labor practice complaints against each other, as negotiations over pay increases and health insurance premiums dragged on for more than six months and often grew heated.

This time around, negotiations went much more smoothly, county and AFSCME officials said. The new contract boosts employee pay by 1.6 percent on July 1, with 2 percent cost-of-living increases starting in July 2015 and 2016.

Additional pay raises would go to employees for each five years of work they put in for the county.

Negotiations with the county, which started earlier this year, “were very professional and respectful,” Yaju Dharmarajah, council representative of the local AFSCME office, said Wednesday. “We concluded in three sessions. Last time, I think it took eight or nine months. It was very tough.”

Union officials sparred with then-county Administrator Dave Kanner, Dharmarajah told The Bulletin on Friday. Dharmarajah said union representatives felt bullied by the county during the 2011 negotiations.

“We had bargaining members leave crying because of the tone set by management, which was obviously disrespectful in a number of ways,” he said. “This time, (county staff) were incredibly courteous.”

Still, the new contract leaves unanswered questions over mandatory union fees. Dharmarajah called fair share “probably the number one issue” for the local AFSCME negotiating team. Just 25 to 30 percent of the 388 Deschutes County AFSCME employees pay union dues, he said, down from about 55 percent a few years ago.

Fair share has been a controversial issue nationwide. If it ended up in a future Deschutes County employee contract, workers in jobs represented by the local AFSCME would have to pay the “fair share” of negotiating costs taken on by the union, in the form of union dues, even if they don’t want to be represented.

Advocates of fair share policies say the negotiations benefit everyone by increasing worker pay. Some employees take issue with the idea of paying for representation they don’t want.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments earlier this year in an Illinois case brought forward by an employee who objected to paying fair share union dues. No ruling has been issued in that case.

Dharmarajah said Des­chutes County is one of the few AFSCME-represented governments in Oregon that doesn’t have a fair share policy in place.

The new contract doesn’t say county employees have to go for or against the fair share idea, county Administrator Tom Anderson said Thursday. It just opens the door for those talks next year.

Anderson praised the union representatives for working with the county on what he called a fair and honest contract.

“It was very cooperative and collegial,” he said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7820,