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School workers reject district's offer

By BARBARA BEHRENDT

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 24, 2000


LECANTO -- Citrus County's blue-collar school workers on Friday soundly rejected their first-ever contract after 21/2 years of waiting for one.

The vote was 108 to reject and 75 to accept. Between 400 and 450 employees were eligible to cast a ballot.

As soon as the ballots were methodically counted by local Teamsters bargaining team members, Teamsters business agent Bob Meeks walked over to Ed Murphy, chief negotiator for the school district.

"This is no put-down on you, Ed, but the people have spoken," Meeks said.

Meeks and the local bargaining team had told Murphy several weeks ago that, while they thought the employees should get a chance to vote on the contract after such a long wait, they planned to speak out against it.

Not only did they think the pay raises proposed were too low, but they rejected the language because whole sections of the proposal both sides had agreed on over the many months of negotiations had been thrown out and rewritten by the administrative team at the last minute.

The Teamsters, who represent the district's bus drivers, food service workers, maintenance workers and custodians, had also pushed hard to get binding arbitration in the contract, including for suspensions and firings, but that was soundly opposed by the School Board's team.

The vote to reject leaves open the question of what will happen to the retroactive raise money proposed for distribution to employees. The contract proposal included retroactive raises totaling $254,000 for the current year that ends June 30, and $206,000 for 2000-01. That amounted to average annual raises of $877 for this year and $564 for next school year.

To the Teamsters representatives, the rejection was a clear sign that the employees, even as anxious as they have been to see the contract settled and receive pay raises, didn't want to settle for something inferior because they felt compelled to.

Murphy had told the union that if they didn't accept the last contract offer, the retroactive raise money would be gone, just like any available raises during the last two years of negotiating.

After the vote, Murphy said he couldn't comment on where that issue stands now, saying that money was something to be discussed at the table.

"I'm disappointed for the employees because almost 21/2 years is too long for this to be going on," Murphy said.

He also credited the loss to the fact that less than half of the workers sent back their mailed ballots. He felt those who were opposed were more likely to take the time to vote. "I think there were a lot more positives out there that could have voted, but didn't," Murphy said.

Jean Russell, a bus driver and Teamsters bargaining team member, saw it in another way.

"They just said no," she said. Although money was important to some employees, "I don't think it (the contract) was what they wanted. They wanted respect, and they felt they had been pushed up against a wall."

Meeks said there were some employees who were interested in seeing the retroactive pay and the promise of raises next year. And money can be hard to turn down.

"It's not hard to turn down when you think it's just 10 cents an hour for the last three years we've been negotiating," said Fred Stoner, a mechanic and Teamsters team member.

Although celebrating a rejected contract might seem a contradiction, the Teamsters were jovial and in a celebratory mood after the vote. They said they had been worried that employees would accept a contract that wasn't the best they could get, and the vote could have gone either way. That feeling has been obvious throughout the negotiation process, as Teamsters and others who supported the workers have staged several protests, including picketing the school District Services Center in Inverness several times.

The rejection means the teams will soon be returning to the bargaining table. Teamsters officials said they hope the vote sends a message to the school district officials.

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