ITHACA, N.Y.—One year after a successful union election, Bangs Ambulance workers are still working towards a labor contract.
Last October, paramedics and EMS workers at Ithaca’s only ambulance operator voted narrowly to form a union. At the time, organizers said they wanted to negotiate for higher pay, better benefits and updates to equipment and emergency response protocols. Proponents said a union contract could help to bring stability to an emergency response system that some said had been stretched too thin.
Bangs Ambulance Workers United vice president and paramedic John Schwartz said the company received a complete draft of the contract within the last few weeks. He said the union has also shared the individual sections of the contract as they were completed.
Schwartz said he’s hopeful a labor contract will be signed and ratified “in the next few months.” Formal negotiations began in June.
Schwartz said there have so far been seven negotiation sessions with Bangs Ambulance owners Tim and Meghan Bangs, some of which he said have been “more productive than others.”
Neither Tim or Meghan Bangs responded to The Ithaca Voice’s request for comments.
Schwartz declined to offer any details on the content of the contract negotiations, citing a desire to honor the “confidentiality” of the process, but he said the unionizing and negotiation process has created some waves within the small ambulance company.
“It’s an intense process,” Schwartz said. “You’re sitting across the table from your boss. It’s a little weird.”
While that may be the case, Schwartz said that the work has always come first.
“I run calls with Meghan Bangs and I’ve worked with Tim [Bangs] on the radio,” Schwartz said. “I run calls with hardcore anti-union people, people we’ve had fairly tense conversations with. But at the end of the day, we have to serve [together]. It gets a little surreal [when] we sit across the table from these people at a bargaining session.”
An election last October showed a narrow victory for the union. Of those who voted, 22 voted to form a union and 20 voted against. Four people did not vote.
Union president and Bangs paramedic Matt Sullivan said that support for the union — both within Bangs and throughout the community — has increased since last year’s election.
“I think we’re actually in a stronger position than we were before,” Sullivan said. “It was kind of a close vote in the end. But my understanding is we would have a wider margin in our favor now.”
Sullivan said the ambulance company is still experiencing high turnover and uncompetitive pay, though he said some of those issues are industry or region-wide.
“Even though we’re making a little bit less than [paramedics in Dryden or Trumansburg], we’re doing generally more calls than anyone else in … the Tompkins County area,” Sullivan said. “But everyone’s getting underpaid.”
Part-time Bangs paramedic Jim Smith has been vocally dismayed with the union organizing process and has penned several opinion pieces on the subject. Smith said he’s not against unions as a concept, but said he didn’t think that initial union organizers at Bangs took the right approach.
“I think a union can be especially [helpful] like with a big company like Starbucks, or with a government agency,” Smith said. “It protects you from being a cog in the wheel with no say. But I think when you talk about small family businesses with smaller budgets, it gets a lot more complicated.”
Smith, 67, works on a per diem basis and does not rely on Bangs for health insurance. He said those factors have allowed him to speak more freely about the union effort.
Smith said he’s considering pursuing a union deauthorization election. Deauthorization allows workers to opt out from paying union dues while remaining fully covered by the union contract.
At least 30% of eligible workers must express interest before the National Labor Relations Board will hold a deauthorization election. Deauthorization itself requires a simple majority vote.
Smith said he worried some Bangs workers would be tempted to quit the job rather than pay union dues. Asked if that’s something he’d consider as well, Smith said he’d like to see what the contract looks like first.
Elie Piha, secretary for the union and an Emergency Medical Technician at Bangs, said the experience of supporting the development of Bangs Ambulance Workers United changed how he views unions entirely.
“I used to say […] I’m not pro-union, necessarily, I’m pro-worker,” Piha said. “And, I’ve now since through research and experience firsthand realized that those are the same thing.”
Piha and other union officers are open about their goals for contract negotiations only so far as improving wages, benefits, and company culture.
Piha sees the Bangs union as a path to achieving all these goals, but he’s careful not to put his words down in stone. When his co-workers ask Piha what the union can promise, “I say, ‘I can’t make you any promises. That’s the nature of negotiations.’”
Ithaca Voice senior reporter Jimmy Jordan contributed reporting to this story.