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Contract Disputes Lead to Demonstrations on Mount Desert Island

MOUNT DESERT ISLAND, Maine - Members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters are demonstrating on Mount Desert Island this afternoon to draw attention to ongoing contract disputes with three area towns. Workers in Southwest Harbor, Mount Desert and Bar Harbor complain that they're being asked to accept reduced health benefits, as part of any new contract deals with the towns.

MDI is one of the top tourist destinations in the state, and the nation. Millions of visitors come annually to visit Acadia National Park and spend money in the area's inns, restaurants and shops. In addition, Bar Harbor, Southwest Harbor and Mount Desert all boast sizeable populations of summer residents, who own expensive homes and pay hefty property taxes.

"We weren't turning it into a rich-versus-poor thing," says Joe Piccone. "We're negotiating. If you have an economic need, tell us."

The problem, as Joe Piccone sees it, is that none of the communities on Mount Desert Island are pointing to economic need as the reason for wanting to reduce workers' health benefits. Piccone is the business agent for Teamsters Local 340, which represents roughly 45 public sector employees in Bar Harbor, Southwest Harbor and Mount Desert.

"They have not given us an economic need," Piccone says. "Mount Desert actually said at the table even though we're a wealth community, it doesn't mean we can't look to save money."

In Southwest Harbor, the town's select board rejected a tentative contract agreement with the teamsters last year. The workers' contract with the town expired last December and Southwest Harbor has now asked a federal mediator to help resolve the impasse.

Meantime, union contracts in Mount Desert and Bar Harbor expired June 30. Those two towns have also filed for mediation.

"Three years ago, we went through the same issue. And they did end up reducing our health care," says Ed Montague, the lab technician at Mount Desert's wastewater treatment plant. Montague says the earlier reduction in benefits cost him somewhere between 50 cents to $1 an hour.

He says the majority of people on MDI don't think twice about the level of health benefits sustaining fireman, cops and other public sector workers. Montague says if anyone is hung up about it, it's non-unionized town workers and elected officials, "because they're not able to either supply it for their employees, if they have a private business, or that's not something they're able to obtain through whoever they're working for," Montague says. "I think that's where a lot of it comes from."

Town managers on MDI wouldn't comment on the contract disputes, other than to confirm that all three towns have gone to mediation to try to resolve them.