Hammering Out a Contract: Exploiting Low-Paid Workers at a Vo-Tech School

Art Welch, the in-school suspension supervisor at the Columbia-Montour Area Vocational Technical School (Vo-Tech) in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, earns $8 an hour, only 75 cents above minimum wage. In the six years he has been at Vo-Tech, he has never had a raise.

Mary Avery, who has worked in the cafeteria for 28 years, earns $9 an hour; some years, she only received a nickel-an-hour increase.

Wendy Zajac, who also works in the cafeteria, has been employed at Vo-Tech seven years; she is the only one of a bargaining unit of 25 workers who received a raise in four years. She now earns $7.25 an hour. The school’s management had no choice except to raise her salary so it would be in compliance with the federally-mandated minimum wage.

Welch, Avery, Zajac, and 22 others, went on strike March 30, after more than three years of patiently waiting for the school’s Joint Operating Committee (JOC) to ratify a contract. The support staff had voted in October 2006 to become a part of the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA). Since then, there have been no raises and no contract for the school’s lowest-paid workers, many of whom are forced to work second jobs; three are receiving public assistance, their wages so low they fall below the federal poverty line. More than half of the members of the bargaining unit have annual wages below $22,050, the federal poverty line for a family of four; about one-third have salaries barely above $14,570, the federal poverty line for two persons.

In an industry in which degrees matter, and which usually result in higher wages, the support staff, about half of whom have at least an associate’s degree, are not compensated for their post-high school education.

Prior to summer 2005, when the last raises were given, pay raises were haphazard. Paula Fritz, who has been at Vo-Tech 25 years, cites a case where the male custodians one year received 50-cent-an-hour raises, but she, the only female custodian, received a raise of only 35 cents an hour. “There was no logic behind it, no evaluations, and I was sure that it was based upon gender rather than performance,” said Fritz.

In addition to arbitrary pay raises, Vo-Tech never had a formal evaluation process for its staff until three years ago. It also has a history of arbitrary hiring practices, with senior administrators hiring friends and colleagues; never in the school’s history has it employed a female in any of the top five administrative slots.

Vo-Tech has about 700 students in 17 training programs. Seven local public school districts are “sending schools”; the Vo-Tech JOC, essentially a school board, is comprised of 14 members, two from the boards of each district. Board members and the public say they support the concept of vocational and technical training programs in high school, but the reality is that some don’t necessarily believe that Vo-Tech education is parallel to that of the other public schools. Board members who voted against the proposed contract have given workers in their home districts better contracts and wages than they do for Vo-Tech.

Several members of the JOC claim they are merely watching out for the public, that economic times are bad and that the $4.30-an-hour raise spread over a five-year contract, which was asked for by the union, was too much. However, even with heavy turnover and generally lower incoming salaries, the JOC granted its five administrators a combined $22,367 raise between their 2006-2007 and 2009-2010 salaries. It also granted in the 2009-2010 school year a combined $10.60-an-hour raise to four employees of the classified nonunion staff, and a $6,190 raise over two years to its adult education coordinator. The current administrative director earns $85,348 a year; the principal earns $70,000 a year. The union estimates the school has also already paid its lawyer about $31,000 to negotiate its side of the contract. Labor lawyers in Pennsylvania typically earn $200-$350 an hour, or about 20-35 times an hour than that of the bargaining unit’s median wage.

“If the Committee would agree to the proposal currently on the table, it wouldn’t even increase the proposed budget,” says Holly Diltz, union president and the school’s child accounting/transportation specialist.

A tentative agreement had been reached and signed off by lawyers for both management and the workers. But in December 2009, the JOC arbitrarily declared it wanted 44 substantive changes; several of the changes involved items previously proposed by the JOC, agreed to by the union and then deliberately changed by the JOC negotiators. “The members were cherry-picking at the contract,” says John Holland, PSEA field director, who believes one of the major reasons why JOC members didn’t accept the agreed-upon contract was “because they may have been influenced by their own districts.”

Among issues the JOC decided weren’t acceptable were the agreed-upon pay raise, which had been about 3 percent a year, but was arbitrarily reduced by the JOC to less than 2 percent a year. Other changes from the agreed-upon contract were elimination of both overtime pay for snow removal and two emergency/personal days a year; a provision to eliminate walkouts and layoffs; the number of holidays, which would have been less than what teachers and administrators receive; and the refusal to allow more than one year’s retroactive pay, thus assuring that the lowest-paid workers would not receive a raise for at least the first two years after they organized.

Prior to organizing, Vo-Tech staff workers did not pay for their health insurance. However, in what is legally known as anti-union animus (commonly known as retaliatory actions), management required the workers to pay the same amount for health care costs as the school’s higher-paid teachers, and twice what the administrators pay. There was also a provision that management, at its discretion, could change health care coverage and fees at any time during the contract.

However, one of the most critical negotiating points is management’s refusal to yield to “just cause” provisions, which requires full and fair grievance procedures, including progressive discipline, and forbids the employer from reprimanding, disciplining and suspending support staff without having “just cause.” If “just cause” isn’t in the contract, said the PSEA’s Paul Shemansky, “employees can become targets of the employer.” An employer who isn’t subject to just cause protections will often adhere to management’s will, even if the employer’s actions are ethically questionable. The absence of the just cause provision, said Shemansky, “can make life so miserable that the employee will quit.” He said the PSEA is convinced that management’s insistence to keep just cause provisions out of the contract may be because “they want to punish the workers for having gone out on strike,” and don’t wish to be subjected to having to prove charges against employees. If just cause is not part of a contract, said Shemansky, the union can’t argue for the workers during disciplinary arbitration. In contrast to what the JOC wants for Vo-Tech, the contracts from the “sending districts” include just cause.

Renegotiating after agreeing to a contract is “unheard of in any union negotiation; it is the most egregious act I have ever seen in 20 years,” said John Holland, PSEA field representative, who was employed by school boards and the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry before his employment 11 years ago with PSEA. Two separate independent mediators, who had been active in the bargaining for the past three years, had even cautioned management’s attorney against certain inflammatory comments, and stated they had never seen such action on the part of management in their own experiences, according to a source present during negotiation sessions.

To cover for the strikers, Vo-Tech administration has taken over some of the duties, even though they aren’t qualified for those jobs. The administration has also recruited “volunteer” students to do the cleaning, mopping and sweeping. It has used students to tutor other students; it has used students to prepare food and serve it in the cafeteria. The administration has several times taken students out of their academic classes to cover duties previously associated with the striking workers.

Shortly after the union went on strike, the school’s computer system went down, forcing staff to do all work on paper and delaying the issuance of grades for more than a week. It was almost a week after the problem was detected that the server was back online after the administration had to call in an outside consultant. Jeremy Adams, the bargaining unit’s highest paid employee, receives $18.46 an hour, significantly less than outside consultants or what he could make in private industry.

The PSEA has filed charges with the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board (PLRB) against the school and its JOC for failure to bargain, conditional bargaining and bad faith bargaining, all violations of state law. Resolution of the complaints could be several months, mostly because the PLRB is underfunded and has fewer hearing officers than the workload demands.

Several community residents have called into the local newspaper to complain that the workers should be happy just to have jobs and shouldn’t be protesting low wages and exploitation benefits. Becky Heller, who had been a member of the board from one of the seven “sending schools” for the first three years after the union organized, in the public comments section of the local newspaper argued that management should “Fire striking Vo-Tech union members and replace them with people who want to work,” a violation of Pennsylvania law. Heller also erroneously claimed that the strikers “got ample raises each year before they unionized.” She falsely claimed, “The union moved in and now they are on strike. So, how’s that union working for you? They got their dues, you didn’t get a raise. Do you GET IT yet?” By law, the PSEA cannot collect dues until a contract is in place.

However, even in a rural area in which the editorial philosophy of the local newspaper and a large number of residents have a strong anti-union bias, community residents have been “largely supportive,” said Diltz. “They have driven past the picket lines, and given ‘thumbs-up’ signs, sometimes stopped to chat or donate food,” she said. In support of the strikers, most of the teachers have refused to take on additional duties at the school. Other unions, including the Teamsters, have refused to cross the picket lines. Deliveries are made to the sending schools, and then trucked to Vo-Tech by district personnel.

A strike is the last act, not only indicative that bargaining has gone wrong, but also of worker exploitation. For three and a half years, the workers didn’t have a contract, wage increases or a reasonable procedure to handle grievances. To strike, when every other remedy had failed, they fully understood the financial and emotional sacrifices they would have to make. But they were willing to make those sacrifices to achieve a greater good for all workers.

The workers honestly believed management would bargain in good faith, and that the two sides would be able to negotiate a fair contract. But, one month after the strike began, the lowest paid workers at the school also realized that management was obstinate in some of its demands. On April 2, one month after the strike began, the union suspended the strike. “We realized the students were seriously worried that without the tutors they wouldn’t be able to pass their courses by the end of the semester,” said Diltz, “and we couldn’t do that to them.”

There was also another reality to ending the strike. Although the PSEA gave members loans with no interest, the members still have to pay back those loans. “Some of our members who were sole support for their families just couldn’t handle the stress anymore,” said Diltz.

“We’re all aware there will be vindictiveness,” by management, said Diltz. Without a contract that includes the just clause provision, management actions, which could include undocumented retaliation against workers, will undoubtedly continue until there is a contract.

Union membership throughout the country has declined from a high of 35.5 percent of all workers in 1940 to 12.3 percent in 2009. Part of that decline is that, as the nation moved from an agrarian economy into the Industrial Age, and now into an Information Age, more workers consider themselves to be professionals and not in need of a union. It is an incorrect perception, unsubstantiated by the reality of forced layoffs, arbitrary discipline and terminations, outsourcing of work to other countries and a failure to provide adequate health care and workplace safety.

The Vo-Tech workers made two mistakes. The first mistake was that they, like many workers in most American companies, believed that even if there were arbitrary and capricious actions by management, that the administration, professional and support staff were family. The second mistake was not to have formed a union when they were still feeling they were part of a family, in order to protect themselves against that time when their family would turn against them.