May 6, 2012

Schools, unions locked in tug of war

Districts say budget woes must be fixed, but workers call concessions harsh

BY DAVID F. ROBINSON Staff Writer

FARMINGTON -- With school districts statewide facing tight budgets in recent years, the union groups representing school bus drivers, custodians and other support staff have been under increasing pressure to make concessions to survive.

click image to enlarge

HITTING HOME: Mt. Blue Regional School District custodian and bus driver Bruce Rollins talks Thursday about pending cuts to employees in the district.

Staff photo by David Leaming

School boards and administrators say they struggle with tough and unavoidable decisions to trim budgets, forcing them to pursue everything from wage freezes to layoffs when negotiating with unions.

Union representatives and members counter that they are open to compromise but say that during recent contract talks they worried more about losing their jobs to less expensive subcontractors.

The struggle to find a middle ground has divided communities and highlighted national debates about labor rights and educational funding, according to officials on both sides of the negotiating table.

In some cases, such as in Madison-based School Administrative District 59, both sides reach a contract agreement that they say helps preserve the union, while also securing future savings for the district by cutting back on benefits and wages for new hires.

SAD 59 school board members and the support staff union signed a three-year contract in March, following several months of debate about subcontracting to replace bus drivers and custodians.

In other cases, such as a developing situation in Farmington-based Mt. Blue Regional School District 9, deadlocked contract negotiations lead to tense showdowns between district officials and union representatives.

Mt. Blue school board members recently voted to allow the superintendent to subcontract custodial services unless the union agrees in upcoming contract mediation to accept concessions that save the district at least $200,000 annually. The vote came after 14 months of contract negotiations.

Peter Bennett, an attorney specializing in collective bargaining, said that in general the challenges faced by school districts reflect national trends among labor negotiations in the private and public sector alike. He is president of the Bennett Law Firm, which has offices in Portland and Boston and solely represents management in labor negotiations.

Benefits predominant issue

Battles between employers and unions over cuts in health insurance and retirement benefits have become the predominant issue, driving them to consider making drastic changes or face breakdowns that harm both sides, Bennett said.

"I think that frankly this is one of the more cooperative times in labor-management relations," he said.

But Bennett added he believes neither side has gained a significant negotiating advantage that prompted the recent shift toward compromise.

"It's not that the deals being struck are especially lucrative for either side but, rather, that everybody knows how difficult the economy is," he said.

He primarily represents private businesses and has also worked with school districts and other government organizations to settle labor negotiations across New England and New York for 20 years.

Chris Galgay, president of the statewide educational workers union group Maine Education Association, said that he opposes replacing school district employees with subcontractors, regardless of the job title.

"We feel that every employee working in a district has a loyalty (to) and pride in the school," he said.

Galgay described subcontracting as a quick fix that has a negative effect on a school district, saying it replaces employees who have a connection to the unique educational community with people who may not share that approach to the job.

Because local union units handle their own contract negotiations, Galgay said he wouldn't comment on specific school districts. He said that some districts have gone to subcontracting bus drivers and custodians for a number of reasons, which makes it difficult to assess the issue.

Teachers' unions have frequently been affected by similar budget cuts, but a majority of school districts first look for savings by outsourcing support staff before making cuts in the classroom, he said.

(Continued on page 2)

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