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Union members protest contract, question levy

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By Brian Beckley

The Courier-Herald

Members of the International Union of Operating Engineers staged an informational picket before the March 15 Sumner School Board meeting to protest the district's handling of a contract dispute.

Union members also questioned why they should support the district's April 25 levy re-vote, which accounts for 20 percent of the district's operating budget, including all athletics and activities, technology and 50 percent of the transportation budget.

“Why should we support the school district with the levy?” Union Representative John Thompson asked the school board.

The union, which includes all of the non-teachers working for the district, including bus drivers, maintenance workers, food service employees and custodial staff, has been negotiating a new contract with the district since a previous contract expired Aug. 31.

The district and union have been adhering to most of the terms of the expired contract since it expired.

According to Thompson, union members voted down the most recent contract offer with 82 percent of the members voting “no” during a March 1 meeting.

Thompson said though the picket was not voted on by members, it was initiated by the district's bus drivers, who represent the largest group within the union and who are not pleased with a potential restructuring of their hours that could result in reduced pay.

District officials said there is no proposed decrease in hours.

Thompson said union members have three main concerns with the contract that was offered: Wages, benefits and a dispute over administration of the union's pension fund.

According to Thompson, the district's contract offer included a 1.5 percent increase in wages, close to the state “pass through” of 1.2 percent. Thompson complained that the district is taking the extra money from insurance benefits.

Thompson also said the district is restructuring the formula by which it figures benefits, limiting the number of days worked to 180, the number of days in a school year. Thompson said the new formula is not fair to part-time workers who work more than 180 days per year, such as custodial staff.

Union members also said part-time employees are being forced to the state's BASIC Health program.

“(Superintendent) Dr. (Donald) Eismann says he wants the Cadillac of school districts. He doesn't. He got he Wal-Mart of school districts,” said one bus driver who asked not to be identified.

District officials deny pushing workers to the state plan and said the issue was never presented at the bargaining table.

According to the union, the district is also looking to decrease the amount placed into the pool for workers who choose not to use the benefits offered by the district.

The effect would be less money in the overall insurance pool.

“It has an impact to both full-time and part-time employees because when money is not used for insurance benefits ... that money goes into a pool that can be shared amongst other people that are using more,” Thompson said.

District officials said they could not comment on labor negotiations.

The final sticking point for the union revolves around the pension plan.

According to Thompson, the union's pension plan is handled by the International Union, but the district handles the administrative duties of transferring the funds from the workers' salaries to the union accounts.

Since the contract expired Aug. 31, the district has not been sending the money to the union, despite the fact that all other aspects of the previous contract have been carried forward during negotiations.

Thompson said the union has preparing to file an Unfair Labor Practice proceeding against the district regarding the pension transfers.

According to District Communications Director Ann Cook the district had been sending 2 percent of the union members' salaries to the pension through Aug. 31. Starting Sept. 1, the district added the money directly to the workers paychecks.

“We have now increased the employee salary by 2 percent,” Cook said.

“They made a unilateral change (to the contract) that we find is an unfair labor practice,” Thompson countered.

Thompson stressed that the union is not yet calling for voters to turn down the levy, just asking why they (union members) should throw their support behind it, though they recognize the difficult position it may put them in.

Thompson said the union was making a “political point” and called the levy vote “the only way we can put a hurt to the school district - and it isn't something we relish.”

“What other choice do (they) give us?” he asked.

Cook said the district was “somewhat disappointed and puzzled to see the reference to the levy.”

“Levy dollars are a critical source of funding for the district,” she said.

Asked about the possibility of a strike in the future, Thompson said it was “always a possibility” but could be averted if the next contract offer meets the union's standards.

Brian Beckley can be reached at bbeckley@courierherald.com.

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