SEIU members in California to vote on dues

With pension and contract fights on the horizon, California's largest state workers union first must fight off a rear-guard action that threatens to reduce its total revenue by more than 25 percent.

The internal dispute within Service Employees International Union Local 1000 stems from the labor organization's decision last year to raise its dues 50 percent. As a result of the increase, a retired information systems analyst has forced an election that could exclude "fair-share" fee payers in SEIU 1000's largest bargaining unit from forking over any money to the union at all.

Lyle Hintz, 60, is the retired SEIU 1000 member who started the campaign to abolish the fee last year. He described his campaign as a protest against union leadership and said he is seizing on the fair-share issue as the best way to express it. "There is no mechanism within the union for members or nonmembers to take that has an effective impact on the union," Hintz said.

Going to California's Public Employment Relations Board, or PERB, with the fair-share election, he said, creates a neutral venue where "the rank and file can actually have a voice." The board has verified that 30 percent -- or about 13,000 employees -- in the union's Bargaining Unit 1, the so-called administrative division, have signed petitions calling for the election. A date for the balloting is expected to be set this week, according to PERB general counsel division chief Les Chisholm.

SEIU 1000 last year increased dues on the 87,000 employees it represents from 1 percent to 1.5 percent of their monthly salaries. The increase went into effect in July. A second increase that would have pushed the rates up to 1.75 percent in 2010 was forestalled at SEIU 1000's recent general council meeting in San Jose. The second increase now will be subject to a vote of the full membership.

Union President Jim Hard said the increase was SEIU 1000's first in 16 years. He said that "errors were made in the process of raising dues" over the past year by not getting the information out to the rank and file on what the union planned to do with the money -- "modernizing our infrastructure" and "adding additional staff" for "research, legal and bargaining."

"We failed to get that fact out to our members," Hard said. "We think it was a communication problem, and we're paying the price for it now."

Fair-share workers are employees in a bargaining unit who don't join the union but are still required by law to pay for contract negotiations and other services provided by the labor organization. They make up about a third of the 43,000 employees in Unit 1, according to the union.

With unit members paying an average of $75 a month in dues, according to Hard, and fair-share employees paying a couple dollars less, SEIU 1000 stands to lose about $12.5 million a year if the rescission campaign succeeds and it carries over into the next contract. That amounts to about 29 percent of the $44 million in revenue the union declared last year.

The fight over the fair-share payers comes at a time when petitions are circulating on a ballot measure that would reduce pensions on state employees hired after July 2009. Meanwhile, the union's contract with the state expires next year, with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's budget writers already projecting an $8.6 billion operating deficit.

Hintz said union leaders "always argue it's a bad time to talk about dues reductions and fair-share fees going away." A union member and shop steward in Unit 1 until he retired last year, Hintz acknowledged his campaign is serving as a distraction but said SEIU leaders have nobody to blame but themselves.

"Of course, it will distract from (the pension and contract fights)," Hintz said. "If (the union leaders) were wise, they would have rolled back the dues to an amount acceptable to the rank and file. If they would have done that, they would have taken away the traction of the rescission campaign. They've done their best to give it the traction it needs."

Hard, himself a member of Unit 1, as union president is drawing the same $50,000-range salary he earned as an Employment Development Department worker. He also was hit with the dues increase. He said the rescission campaign will give union activists "a real opportunity to meet with the members as to the challenges we're facing and how damaging a rescission of fair-share fees would be to the struggles that we have in front of us."

"I believe we'll be successful if we get out and speak with the members and listen to them and listen to their concerns," Hard said.

Full-fledged union members, who make up two-thirds of the bargaining unit, will get to vote on the rescission along with the fair-share payers. Balloting is expected to be conducted by mail over the course of a few weeks to a month, according to PERB.

Out in the trenches of the state's work force, Joe Severino, a return-to-work consultant for the State Compensation Insurance Fund, said most of the employees he talks to are opposed to the dues increase. But most, he said, also will be voting against the rescission.

"I really would be very surprised if it isn't overwhelmingly shot down," said Severino, who is based in Santa Rosa.

Kevin Brown, a Department of Insurance employee in Sacramento, is a fair-share payer who signed the petition for the rescission. He said the issue is "not something that people talk about a lot" in his office. Fair-share payers that he talks to, however, are lining up in favor of the effort.

"They certainly support an alternative to the union," Brown said.

At its general council meeting in San Jose, SEIU 1000 leaders faced criticism from a self- described "reform" movement within the union that has expressed biting criticism of Hard and his leadership team. But leaders of the insurgent group, California State Employees United, said they are lining up against the fee rescission despite their dissatisfaction with their leaders.

"The solution is to remove the current elected officers, not weaken our union," CSEU President Alex Hernandez said.


Violent, striking TN union decertified

An eight-month strike in Loudon County, TN came to an end this week when a national labor board decertified the striking union. Strikers spent part of the day Wednesday pulling up their pickets outside Maremont Exhaust Products in Loudon County.

This week the National Labor Relations Board effectively dissolved the union after workers and strikers voted 223 to 141 to decertify the union. Maremont General Manager Tim Sayers estimated that now more than 200 people are looking for jobs.

In a statement, Bob Wood, spokesman for The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, said, “This is the worst kind of union-busting. A Texas millionaire bought a good company with a great reputation and has forced out the very workers who made that reputation. This is all about cheap labor and leaving workers without a voice.”

In February, 227 union members went on strike primarily over significant increases in employee costs for health insurance. In early spring, the company permanently replaced about 150 of the striking workers.

Since the strike began, there have been reports of windows on vehicles being broken in drive-by shootings, a fire set at an employee’s house, an electrical transformer shot by a high-powered rifle, a bomb scare at the plant, tires being slashed and rocks thrown at individuals and vehicles.

Maremont, which is owned by International Muffler Co. of Schulenburg, Texas, produces automotive exhaust components, including heavy duty mufflers and catalytic converters.

In a statement, Sayers said that the company did not request the decertification election, but rather an employee did. That employee was one of 24 who crossed the picket line, Sayers said.

“Maremont employees saw first hand what the Union Local stood for and how they conducted the strike. We believe that the actions of a small number of the Local’s members gave the entire organization a black eye. The use of threats, violence, intimidation, and harassment turned Maremont’s employees against the union,” Sayers said.

Earlier in the day, Wood released a blistering statement about the decertification.

“It’s obvious that in this case, the very government entities that were set up to protect workers and their jobs were used to destroy good-paying jobs and communities,” Wood said.

“Instead of Maremont being a company that builds a strong community, they will now turn into a low-wage, substandard-benefit manufacturer, which drives down the standard of living across the community,” the statement said.

The company responded, “Interestingly, while the union is claiming solidarity, one of the officers of the Union’s Local has filed charges with the NLRB against the International Union, claiming that the International breached its duty of fair representation to its members so that it could cease paying its members strike benefits and could avoid incurring substantial attorneys’ fees in defense of an upcoming unfair labor practice trial concerning the union’s illegal conduct during the strike.”


Seneca football coach to cross teachers' picket line

Teachers in the Seneca (PA) Valley School District could go on strike today, but it won't stop Ron Butschle from coaching the high school's football team.

Butschle said the teachers' union has asked him not to coach if there is a strike. But he said he will cross a picket line if he must. Butschle is a 10th-grade English teacher at Seneca Valley.

"I couldn't look myself in the mirror if I didn't coach," Butschle said. "One of the things we talk about constantly with the team is the idea of commitment, and being dedicated to one another. It's kind of like being a family. I feel like I'd be turning my back on those kids if I didn't coach.

"I know this [crossing a picket line] is not going to sit real well with a lot of people. But I'm just going to have to deal with it. I'd rather deal with that, than knowing I was being disloyal to these kids, because I've asked for a lot of loyalty from them."

Seneca Valley has a 4-3 record and is in good shape to qualify for the WPIAL Class AAAA playoffs for the first time in Butschle's four years as coach. The Raiders are in third place in the Northern Five Conference. The top four teams are guaranteed a postseason spot.

Butschle has two assistants who are teachers. He said one has decided not to coach if there is a strike, but the other will continue coaching.


SEIU leads oppostion to accountability measure

Excuse Tim Eyman if he gloats a bit these days. Washington's initiative king is convinced that Initiative 960, the latest volley in his war against tax-and-spend government, is rolling toward an easy victory in November.

Initiative 960 is a sleeper. But if it wins voter approval and survives a constitutional challenge, it will make new taxes a dicey proposition for legislators.

Eyman says I-960 is all about accountability. Under it, lawmakers wouldn't be able to hike your taxes without a two-thirds vote, full disclosure to voters and the glare of media exposure. Voters who sign up for e-mail alerts would be flooded with information as tax measures work their way through the legislative process.

Even increases in fees for driver's licenses, hunting tags and forest permits would require approval by a majority of legislators under I-960.

If lawmakers attach emergency clauses to tax bills, taking away the right to vote on them through the referendum process, voters would get to have their say at "advisory" non- binding elections - even if their vote wouldn't change anything. That provision was included to deter what Eyman regards as the Legislature's routine abuse of the emergency clause.

He predicts that lawmakers will be uncomfortable defending such votes. "As the courts have said, we can't stop legislators from repealing our constitutionally guaranteed right of referendum, but we have every right to know which legislators are doing it," he said. "Under I-960, there will never again be an under-the-radar-screen revenue-raising bill."


I-960 also is about closing what Eyman sees as a loophole in Initiative 601, the state's 1993 voter-approved spending limit. The Legislature reaffirmed the 1993 spending limit in 1995 and 2005. But Eyman's initiative seeks to prevent lawmakers from shifting revenue from one account to another to get around the limit, a practice both parties have used.

"The Legislature is very creative at getting around the law," Eyman said. "They create loopholes, and they'll try to find loopholes in this bill."

For example, the 2006 Legislature put some of its surplus revenue into accounts marked for payments to health, education and pension funds. Transferring that revenue out of the general fund technically allowed lawmakers to stay within the spending limit.

The maneuver, which some have called a "shell game," will no longer be legal anyway under a 2005 law that took effect July 1.

Measure polls strong

A poll by independent pollster Stuart Elway in early August found that 63 percent of voters, and 50 percent of Democrats, supported I-960. Its most popular feature, which was suggested by state Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, is the requirement for broad public notification when a lawmaker proposes a tax increase.

"I think it will pass overwhelmingly," Benton said. "You don't have to have a degree in economics to know that if you shed the light on what the Legislature does, the Legislature will be more careful with its taxing authority."

Opponents, led by the Service Employees International Union and the environmental group Futurewise, went to court in May to block placement of I-960 on the ballot. They argued that the measure was unnecessary, would lead to "endless, expensive elections" and would make government less efficient and less able to respond to a crisis. Gov. Chris Gregoire has warned that the measure would shackle state government with "extra handcuffs."

In their brief, Futurewise and SEIU noted that their organizations' missions "depend upon the sufficiency of state revenues" and would be hurt by "the drain on revenue" resulting from I-960's passage.

Keith Scully, Futurewise's legal director, predicted that "irresponsible changes to the taxing process could cripple our effort to move forward as a state, and destroy the quality of life we enjoy in Washington."

SEIU vice president Carol Frontiera, a certified nurse assistant, said I-960 "could cause deep cuts to the vital health and long-term care services Washington residents need."

Police, firefighters, nurses, the Children's Alliance, Washington Conservation Voters, the Washington State Labor Council and the Washington Education Association are among other influential groups arrayed against the measure.

But their legal strategy failed in early September, when the Washington Supreme Court unanimously rejected their request for an injunction to prevent Secretary of State Sam Reed from allowing I-960 to be voted on in November.

The court said constitutional issues raised by Futurewise and SEIU - including whether the initiative process could be used to require a two-thirds majority vote on bills - could be argued only when and if the measure wins voter approval.

With the defeat, opponents were forced to mount a campaign against I-960. As of Friday, their campaign committee, the Washington Tax Fairness Coalition, had reported $858,940 in cash contributions, including $200,000 from the Association of Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees and $195,000 from SEIU.

Eyman's supporters had raised $680,190 as of Oct. 9, of which $500,000 came from Michael Dunmire, an investment executive from the Seattle suburb of Woodinville, and his wife Phyllis. By far, the majority of Eyman's contributors gave less than $100. Most of that money was spent gathering signatures and fighting to keep the measure on the ballot, Eyman said.

False comparison

So far, the campaign has been fought mainly on the editorial and op-ed pages of Washington newspapers. And at least one argument the Tax Fairness Coalition has put forward doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

"When a similar measure was enacted in Colorado," its materials claim, "education funding dropped from 35th in the nation to 49th, child immunization rates fell to dead last among the 50 states, and prenatal care fell from 23rd to 48th."

In fact, the Colorado Tax Payers' Bill of Rights (TABOR), passed by voters as a constitutional amendment in 1992, is not "similar" to I-960. It's a spending limit far more restrictive than Washington's 1993 limit.

The Colorado measure limits not only spending but also revenue growth to the growth in population plus inflation. It requires that excess revenue be refunded to taxpayers. And it applies to local as well as state government.

Those restrictions forced such deep cuts in government services that Colorado voters passed a referendum suspending TABOR for five years.

"While TABOR has caused serious financial problems for Colorado state and local governments, its provisions are quite different from those of I-960," the nonpartisan Washington Research Council said in a briefing paper. "Colorado's experience with TABOR has little relevance to understanding the potential impact of I-960."

I-960 will cost an estimated $485,000 in the first year and could saddle county elections departments with the cost of holding advisory votes.

Eyman scoffs at the argument that it will put a strain on the state budget.

"Our argument is that their cost estimate is chump change," he said. "And it isn't going to cost them anything if they don't raise taxes."

Partisan divide

The state Republican Party has endorsed I-960.

"I think it really sheds some sunshine on what's going on in Olympia, and that's a good thing," said Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, who sits on the House Finance Committee.

Orcutt said he especially likes the prospect of voting on state fee increases. "I think it's a great idea. I'm not sure any legislator knows all the fees that are out there."

The state Democratic Party opposes the initiative.

Rep. Bill Fromhold, D-Vancouver, serves on the House Appropriations Committee, which writes the House budget. He said he generally finds Eyman's initiatives "punitive" and won't support this one.

But there is one part of I-960 he agrees with, at least in principle: the need to curb the excess use of emergency clauses. Lawmakers attached emergency clauses to 73 of the 524 bills they sent to Gov. Gregoire this year.

The appropriations committee already is addressing that issue, Fromhold said.

"Emergency clauses have been amended out of bills as they have come before us. It was getting to a point where policy committees were putting emergency clauses on everything without justification."

Fromhold strongly supports another measure on the November ballot, a constitutional amendment that would automatically deposit 1 percent of general state revenue in a rainy day fund. The fund could be tapped only with a two-thirds vote or if the governor declares an emergency.

"What it does is impose fiscal restraint, which I think is a good idea regardless of who is in power," Fromhold said.

Do voters care?

One question no one can answer before Election Day is how much information voters actually want about state taxes and fees.

Will those who sign up for e-mail alerts tire of messages filling their in-boxes notifying them of the next Olympia tax bill hearing? Will they care every time a state fee is hiked?

"I think there's a segment of the public that definitely does" want that information, Fromhold said. "But I honestly think the majority of the public will trust us to do our job."

Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, said Eyman's initiative fails to recognize that the United States is a republic, in which voters elect representatives to make decisions for them and can vote them out of office if they don't approve.

"It looks like Mr. Eyman doesn't care much for our American republic," Moeller said. "Our accountability at the ballot box every two years is what our constitutional framers envisioned."

The Washington Research Council agrees.

"Initiative 960 is intended to make it more difficult for our elected representatives to raise taxes without referring the matter to a direct vote of the people," it wrote. "As such, it would take the state a step further away from representative democracy."

Though the measure might not pass a constitutional test, that might not matter to those who want to protest what they consider runaway state spending, the council said.

"The recently enacted 2007-09 budget has set the state on an unsustainable spending course. Many voters may welcome the chance to send a message. Legislators have only themselves to blame."


Teachers union strikes against big district

Seneca Valley (PA) schoolteachers were set to begin picketing all of the district's nine schools this morning, in the start of the district's first teacher strike in 22 years. No negotiations were conducted Sunday, and none are scheduled, officials said yesterday. Pickets were expected to go up at 7 this morning.

The district had announced last week that all schools would be closed today, regardless of whether a contract was reached during the weekend.

"This one will be taking off (Monday) morning," Butch Santicola, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, said yesterday. "We didn't want to be here, but we're here."

A state mediator said he would call a meeting if there was a belief one would be productive, but he did not, said Seneca Valley labor counsel Tom King. "I don't blame him, based on Saturday night with no movement from the teachers. There's nowhere to go," King said yesterday. "Without them making any move, there's nothing for me to take back to the board. The board already made its best offer."

The district has nearly 600 teachers for 7,600 students.

E-mails espousing the positions of the district and the teachers are being forwarded among parents and residents, said Chris Bench, 39, of Cranberry, who has a 12-year-old son in seventh grade and a 10-year-old daughter in fifth grade.

"I think there's a lot of misinformation out there," she said. "At this point, I just feel we have to wait and see what happens. Hopefully, if they go on strike, they can settle it quickly and not be out too long. At this point, I think they might be."

State law gives the state Department of Education power to order the teachers to return so that students will complete 180 days of school by June 15. King and Santicola each estimated the Seneca Valley strike could run about a month. Seneca Valley teachers have not gone on strike since 1985, district spokeswoman Linda Andreassi said.

"You're basically living day-by-day." Bench said. "Are they going to school tomorrow? You can't make any plans on doing anything. It isn't free time for anyone. They can go back to school at any time."

Depending on the length of the walkout, students could lose vacation days and see their school year extended into next summer, King said.

The district will send a revised calendar home with students when the strike ends.

According to the district, during the strike:

• Transportation for students enrolled in private, parochial, special needs and early intervention schools outside Seneca Valley buildings will continue. An alternate bus schedule will be used to transport students to the Butler County Vocational Technical School.

• The YMCA day care program will run a full-day program, and students attending should report to Rowan Elementary School. It is open only to those already enrolled in the YMCA's before-and-after school program.

• All extracurricular activities and athletics, including practices and games, will continue as scheduled. The 5:45 p.m. activity bus will run Monday through Thursday, and at 5:30 p.m. on Friday.

• All community activities planned within school buildings will continue as scheduled.

• The Haine Middle School trip to the McKeever Environmental Learning Center for next week is postponed.

• The PSAT test on Oct. 20 will be given as scheduled.

• The Seneca Valley preschool program at the senior high school will be canceled, but will resume when the strike ends.

The PSEA represents teachers at 483 of the state's 501 districts. Teachers at the Lake-Lehman School District in Luzerne County are set to strike today, and teachers at Reynolds Area in Mercer County have been out for a week, Santicola said.

Other districts where teachers are working without contracts include Ambridge, Beaver, Shaler, Hampton and Montour.


SEIU rapped for 'smear and fear' dues-mongering campaign

A dementia patient at an Urbana nursing home was raped by another resident in July but wasn't taken to a hospital for more than 24 hours, a state investigation found. That nursing home, Heartland of Urbana, also didn't get physician-ordered laboratory tests for one-third of the residents interviewed during a state inspection last year.

The home is one of 44 in Ohio owned by HCR Manor Care of Toledo. Another is Heartland Fairfield Nursing Center near Lancaster, where a 100-year-old woman died last month after she was left outside unattended. Her wheelchair rolled into the parking lot, and she fell out.

The Carlyle Group, a private investment company, is about to purchase HCR Manor Care, and that has some people concerned about patient care. "These aren't the kind of nursing homes that they can just take over and keep status quo," said Beverly Laubert, long-term care ombudsman for the Ohio Department of Aging. "When you have facilities with such quality problems, someone is going to have to fix them."

Rick Rump, spokesman for HCR Manor Care, said the rape, the fatal fall and the problems that came up during inspections are not the norm.

"Considering the number of patients we serve, there are very few of those incidents," he said. In Ohio, 5,100 people live in HCR Manor Care homes. The Carlyle Group owns companies worldwide, including Hertz and Dunkin' Donuts. Its only health-care-related company is LifeCare, which has 21 long-term care hospitals nationwide.

The $6.3 billion purchase of HCR Manor Care is expected to be completed by the end of this year. Shareholders will vote on it Wednesday.

HCR Manor Care owns two nursing homes in Franklin County: Heartland of Victorian Village and Village at Westerville Nursing Center.

One-third of residents interviewed during a July inspection of Village at Westerville were not given proper treatment to help them progress from incontinence to being able to go to the bathroom on their own, state investigators found. A handful of others were not given lower beds and cushioned floor mats to prevent injuries in falls.

The rape at Heartland of Urbana and the fatal fall at Heartland Fairfield were the most egregious problems at HCR Manor Care homes in central Ohio, state reports show.

"How could that happen if they had enough staff supervising the residents?" Laubert asked, speaking about the rape.

Rump, the Manor Care spokesman, said the staffs will not be cut after the purchase, but he would not say whether more employees would be hired.

"We base our staffing on the number of patients we serve and the care needs of those patients," he said.

All HCR Manor Care nursing homes in Ohio meet the state law requiring that they provide at least 2¾ hours of nursing care for each resident daily, according to figures the company reported to the state Health Department.

"We provide quality care, and we will continue to provide excellent care," said Chris Ullman, a spokesman for the Carlyle Group.

He said the company plans to keep current managers in place but would not comment on staffing levels at the nursing homes in Ohio.

Another state regulation requires that a nursing-staff member monitor no more than 15 patients at once.

Lillian Payne, a certified nursing assistant at Oak Pavilion Nursing Center, an HCR Manor Care home in Cincinnati, said she and one other nursing assistant are responsible for 47 residents from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. That's 23 1/2 patients each. They're supposed to change residents who wet their beds and turn residents in their beds every two hours to prevent bedsores.

"They haven't been turned every two hours," she said.

The more employees are overworked, the more often they don't show up, which just makes it harder for those who do, Payne said.

She spoke to reporters at an event sponsored by the Service Employees International Union, Ohio's largest health-care workers union.

Dave Regan, the union's president, said private equity firms that buy nursing-home chains commonly reduce staffing to increase profits, causing residents to suffer. The New York Times reported last month that residents of nursing homes bought out by large Wall Street investment companies wind up with worse care.

But Ullman, of the Carlyle Group, dismissed the union's "smear and fear campaign" as an attempt to attract employees into the union. SEIU has 1,100 members among the 60,000 employees of HCR Manor Care.

"This is about gaining more dues-paying members for the union. It's not about quality of care," he said.

During a news conference at the Statehouse last week, Regan launched the union's campaign to pressure the Carlyle Group to hire more employees.


Teachers strike in IL continues, no classes today

Classes remained canceled today after District 2 and union officials failed to set up a time for a new bargaining meeting over the weekend. “No meeting has been scheduled to date and schools remain closed,” Superintendent Dan Oest said Sunday evening.

The district’s teachers went on strike Friday after their union, the Richmond/Spring Grove Education Association, failed to reach a contract agreement with the Nippersink (IL) District 2 School Board.

“I am confused, disheartened and appalled that we are not meeting,” said Laura Biloz, the union’s lead negotiator, on Sunday. The two sides cannot agree on how much teachers should contribute to their health insurance premiums and retirement benefits.

On Thursday, the union presented three offers to the board, and the board, in turn, rejected all three offers.

The first offer was to renegotiate the contract at the time of any increase in employee contributions to their retirement system.

The second offer was for employees to pay full contributions to the retirement system without any increase in their contributions to their health-insurance premiums.

The last union offer included employee contributions at 0.5 percent of their salary for health-care benefits, but not until the fourth year of a contract.

The latest offer from both sides includes a 3.5-percent salary increase each year of the contract.

Classes for the 1,600 students that attend the district’s three schools are canceled until a deal is reached.


Labor turmoil strikes PA school district

Enjoy the break, Lake-Lehman (PA) students. It could be long and the last one you see for a while. The district’s union of 153 teachers are set to strike this morning to pressure the school board into granting concessions in a new union contract, the particulars of which have been under dispute for about 18 months.

Teachers will be on picket lines outside of the district’s senior high school and both Lehman-Jackson and Lake-Noxen elementary schools for most of the day.

While there’s nothing official on how long the union can or will strike, Paul Shemansky, communication organizing specialist for the union, said he expects the state Department of Education to notify the union on Tuesday or Wednesday of the exact number of days the initial strike can last. He thinks, however, the initial strike will be capped at 14 school days.

Teachers could walk out again after the union gives 48 hours written notice and remain out unless forced to return by a court injunction.

Without considering possible snow days, that could be until Wednesday, Nov. 28.

“We won’t calculate anything until they actually walk out,” said Michael Race, a spokesman for the state education department.

At that point, the department sends letters to the district and the union noting what day the teachers must return to achieve 180 school days by June 15 and by June 30.

“It’s only a courtesy,” Race said. “It’s not legally binding in any way. … Then the onus is on them to decide if they want to be back by then.”

State law requires teachers return on the day of the June 15 deadline and enter into nonbinding arbitration, he said. If that fails, the union must give 48 hours notice before striking again.

The secretary of the state Department of Education could then seek a court injunction, Race said, which would force a return while enough eligible school days exist to ensure 180 days of classroom education by June 30, 2008. However, that’s rare.

“I don’t know that we’ve ever gotten to that point in recent history. The issues are usually resolved by then,” Race said. “There were at least a dozen (strikes) last year, and we never had to go that route.”

If the school year falls short of 180 days, the state can withhold a prorated amount of the district’s public school subsidy up to the number of days missed, Race said. The district can, however, formally request a waiver from the department secretary.

By state statute, certain days can’t be used to meet the 180-day requirement, including weekends, five major holidays and up to five days the school board must have designated before the school year as specific holidays. Lake-Lehman designated three: two parent-teacher conference days and Presidents’ Day.

Every other weekday activity, including sports, band and state-mandated testing, will continue despite the strike, and transportation will continue to be provided for students attending vocational-technical schools, according to Superintendent James McGovern.

Other extracurricular activities will be “considered on a day-by-day basis,” he said.

At the root of the impasse are health care-premium payments. The union refuses to respond to offers that include such payments, its lead negotiator John Holland said. The school board has made resolutions to never approve a contract without them, board solicitor Charles Coslett said.

Holland invokes regional history in defense of the union’s stance, casting it as the members standing up for their rights as workers.

“It was because of people who were mistreated who stood up for what was right … who made it better for everyone today. It’s sending a very important message out there,” he said on Thursday. “People are asking the wrong question. The question is why don’t we have affordable health care?”

The school board contends that its offer is affordable. Its final four-year offer includes yearly 2.5 percent raises, $200 deductible increases for all policies and healthcare premiums on a sliding scale based on salary that start at 2 percent contribution for the lowest-paid teachers and increase up to 5 percent.

“That’s $7 a pay period (at the lowest level), and I don’t think that’s much. I wish I had that,” board member Mark Kornoski said, noting that his premiums are more like 12 percent and that he has a $1,500 deductible. “I’d jump on that and I’d take a wage cut, and I’d still make some money.”

“I don’t think that John (Holland) and I are that far apart, that health care nationwide is a critical issue. … It’s a problem everywhere,” Coslett conceded, but added that employees must share the burden to fully appreciate it. “Without feeling the pinch of what utilization results in, there’s no disincentive for an employee not to run to a health care provider every time he or she gets the sniffles.”

Student enrollment: 2,100

Number of teachers : 153

Current average salary: $49,200

Highest current health-care premium: $17,100 per employee per year for family coverage

Teacher contribution: none

Deductible: $100 for individuals, $300 for families

Lowest starting salary: $36,470

Top salary: $67,741 for 17 years of employment, a master’s degree and 54 credit hours

Next action: No talks scheduled. Teachers to walk picket lines today

“It was because of people who were mistreated who stood up for what was right … who made it better for everyone today.” -- John Holland, Lead union negotiator


Faculty on strike against high-tuition University

Classrooms at Acadia University will be empty today as the university wades into its second faculty strike in four years. "We’ll be out on the picket line in the morning," Andrew Biro, spokesman for the Acadia Faculty Association that represents 300 professors, instructors and librarians, said after last-ditch negotiations between the association and the university broke down at about 9 p.m. Sunday night.

Students had hoped for the best but were braced for the worst as the midnight deadline approached. "Students are angry and concerned," Kyle Steele, president of the Acadia Students’ Union, said in an interview on campus Sunday. "Students don’t want to lose out on their education," said the fourth-year French major from Sydney. "Nobody wants to lose a term, or any time in class."

He said students are telling him if they’d known there might be a strike, they wouldn’t have bothered paying their tuition or their fees until the labour dispute was resolved. Acadia tuition, at $7,562 a year, is the highest of any undergraduate university in Canada.

Although official enrolment figures won’t be available until later today, there are roughly 3,000 full-time students at Acadia.

"I’m very concerned," said Mr. Steele. "We haven’t seen any progress from both sides, even with a provincial conciliator coming in."

Talks with the conciliator broke off Friday night, setting up a showdown between the faculty and the administration.

But the two sides went into meetings again Sunday morning and talked until 9 p.m.

"Our team is committed to reaching a negotiated agreement," Mr. Biro said earlier Sunday.

Acadia spokesman Scott Roberts had expressed the same sentiments in an interview Friday.

"From the administration side, it’s been pretty clear that we would like to negotiate a settlement as well."

But Mr. Steele said both sides were still far apart on a lot of the issues going into Sunday’s meetings.

He feared that if a strike began and both sides dig in their heels, it may be difficult to settle.

A faculty strike four years ago lasted just over two weeks before an agreement was reached and students were able to make up the time.

The students union has arranged to have more than 60 graduate students help out with tutoring in the event of a strike.

"If students have questions or problems, they can come to our tutors," Mr. Steele said. There will also be programming available, including bus trips to Halifax, shopping, movie nights and other things.

"We plan to step up and provide some value for students while they’re here."

But some are already talking about returning home in the event of a strike.

"I would probably go home," Abby Thibodeau, a first-year kinesiology student from Maine, said Sunday on her way into the student centre.

"My friends are all saying they’ll go home if there’s a strike. So I’m a little worried," she added. "It’s really frustrating not knowing what’s going to happen and how this will affect mid-terms and the finals."

The signs of a possible strike were obvious in town Sunday. The faculty association has set up a highly visible strike headquarters on Elm Avenue. Members were preparing placards there on the weekend.

Negotiations between the union and university administration have been off and on since last spring. In September, a provincially appointed conciliator determined that there was no basis for further negotiations.

But the two sides met with a conciliator for three days last week, until talks broke down Friday night.

Staff complement appears to be the main issue. The union believes the university’s offer could reduce faculty members — professors, instructors and librarians — by nine to 17 per cent over time.

Less faculty would mean larger class sizes and fewer course offerings and make the university less attractive to potential students, the union says.

Wages are also an issue, with the union saying the administration’s recent wage proposal is significantly below regional and national averages, by as much as 20 per cent. That could hurt Acadia’s ability to recruit and retain faculty.

In the last year of the contract, full-time salaries ranged from $41,433 to $119,295. But union spokesmen say that only a handful of its members are at or near the top of that salary range.

Dental benefits, day care, employment equity and fair compensation for part-time faculty are also contentious points.


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