10/16/07

Striking teachers get IBEW to slam school board chief

Their first day on the picket line, striking Lake-Lehman (PA) teachers gained support from teachers in other districts and from the union that represents the school board president at his job.

Teachers walked the picket line Monday as promised, calling for a fair contract after 17 months of negotiations, and got a boost when the president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 163 issued a statement critical of Board President Charles Balavage in his push to have the teachers pay part of their health insurance premiums.

“IBEW Local Union 163 does not support or condone the actions of Mr. Charles Balavage,” the statement said, “His actions are based on individualistic ideals, and in no way reflect the views of Local Union 163. Currently, Mr. Balavage works under a collective bargaining agreement with full health benefits, annuity and pension. Local Union 163 sympathizes with the Lake-Lehman teachers for better wages and conditions.”

Local 163 President John Olejnik said the union issued the statement after receiving calls from the Lake-Lehman Teachers Association. “They felt as though we were behind him. This was our way of saying this is something he’s doing on his own. He’s kind of fighting against what we fight for.”

But Balavage said that, while “some of the statement is pertinent” to the Lake-Lehman teacher negotiations, some is not. “When we get raises in the union, health care is considered part of our raise. It’s not free health care,” he said. “We negotiate an amount and if money is needed in the health care fund, part of that amount goes into it.”

Similarly, any increase in other benefits such as pension would also be “considered as part of our raise, so the comments are a little erroneous,” Balavage said. He also noted that teachers saw their pension payments increase in 2001 through state action, and school boards had no say in the change.

Yet in recent years, district payments toward those pensions increased dramatically as a result of that change.

Support appreciated

On the picket line, lead negotiator John Holland said the 153 striking teachers “appreciate IBEW stepping up to the plate to support teachers, and noted that teachers from at least nine regional districts – and probably more – plan to join the picket line tonight at 6 p.m., one hour before the school board meeting. Holland said he expects representatives from Abington Heights, Lakeland, Lackawanna Trail, Riverside, Old Forge, Dallas, Wyoming Area and Wyoming Valley West School Districts, and West Side Vocational Technical School, as well as others.

“I think people need to look at strikes as democracy in action,” Holland said. “It’s standing up for one’s rights.”

He noted that unions have been responsible for improving work conditions and health care coverage throughout the world, and that it was a union, Solidarity, that helped topple Communist rule in Poland.

“I always say, what is the purpose of sending children to school? It’s to get an education and get a good job and good wages and benefits. That’s exactly what teachers did,” Holland said. “Yet the people teaching these values to the children are criticized for practicing them.”

Community effect

Board Member Mark Kornoski saw things very differently. “It’s a shame what they are doing to the kids and the parents. They are hurting the kids and also the parents who have to miss work, who don’t get paid if they take a day off, while these teachers who are on the line will get full pay when they return to work.”

By state law, the strike must end in time for students to complete 180 days of school by June 15. No one knows exactly when that will be until the state calculates a date based on how many vacation days and holidays built into the school calendar can be sacrificed to meet that deadline.

Both sides are waiting for the state to announce a date, but Holland said he believes it will be about three weeks from now, “give or take a few days.”

That doesn’t mean the union will stay on the picket line until the state deadline. Holland said that decision will be made on a day-by-day basis. But if they do strike to the deadline, both sides would, by law, be forced into non-binding arbitration.

Once that process was completed, teachers could legally strike a second time, and the state would calculate a new deadline to return to work based on the requirement that students get their 180 days by June 30. Teachers cannot legally strike more than two times in a school year.

Holland repeated his contention that a new offer proposed publicly during the Sept. 8 school board work session was not legal because it was not presented to the union negotiating team first. That proposal is for a four-year contract with 3 percent raises each year, and would have teachers pay a percentage of their health insurance premium based on how salary steps, or years they had worked. The co-pay rates were set in three tiers: 2 percent for steps one through seven, 3.5 percent for steps eight though 12, and 5 percent for step 13 and higher.

The board proposal also eliminates what is commonly referred to as “past practices,” the policy of accepting longstanding practices as part of the contract even if they are not written into it. Holland insists that is unacceptable because it gives the board too much power.

Holland said “the board still owes us a proposal,” and declined to say what the union’s last offer was. “I’m not going to negotiate in public.”
Information lacking?

Yet the public isn’t the only group not privy to the union’s proposals. A letter from a teacher was circulated via e-mail that voiced staunch support for the union but questioned the lack of information members received before the strike.

Kornoski said he heard about the letter but had not seen it.

Balavage declined to say whether he had heard or seen the letter, but did say that, if it exists, he respects the teacher’s right to voice an opinion.

Union spokesman Paul Shemansky also said he had heard of the letter but had not seen it, and said “it would be in their rights to make those comments,” though it would have been better to discuss the concerns with union President Dan Williams.

(timesleader.com)

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