Kids disappointed by teachers strike

Julie Baker's girls had their clothes picked out for the first day of school in Burrillville, RI. Their lunches were ready and their alarm clocks were set for yesterday morning. They were up at 5 a.m., some eager, some resigned, to the idea of a new classroom with a new teacher and more challenging lessons.

"I had to tell them to go back to bed," Baker said yesterday morning after an impasse in negotiations between the school district and the teachers' union delayed the opening of school. The impasse led the teachers' union leaders to declare a strike late Tuesday evening and many families didn’t hear the news until after sunrise yesterday.

The reaction around town was mixed, with most parents being annoyed, but portioning out the blame to varying sides of the negotiating table. Each of Baker's girls had their own opinion.

"I was pumped to go back to school to see my friends, but at the same time I was dreading the teachers I have," said Baker's 17-year-old daughter, Tayle D. Foster, who is bound for her junior year at the high school.

Her 8-year-old sibling, Madison L. Baker, was visibly upset. She noted that she was looking forward to working with her new teacher. Her twin sister, MacKenzie E. Baker, was just as enthusiastic.

"We want to go to school," Madison said.

"I don't," said her other sister, Misty R. Baker, a 10-year-old who has enjoyed a fabulous summer. She wants more time to ride horses. She loves horses.

Down the road, youngsters of all ages were riding their skateboards and scooters.

Allissa Koprusak, 14, was headed for the skate park across the street from the Callahan School.

"I guess we have a longer summer now, but we get to make it up next year," she said.

Her companion, 12-year-old Xiomara R. Figueroa, spoke for her family.

"We were all ticked off this morning," she said.

"I haven't seen most of my friends for the whole summer and I was looking forward to it," said 11-year-old Shahaira A. Pratt.

Their mother, Damais Pratt, wasn't among the working parents who had to find someone to look after her children. But she wasn't happy with the situation.

"I'm up at 6 a.m. in the morning expecting the teachers to get on the job," she said.

But she didn't blame the teachers.

"It's not their fault," she said. "Pay them what they need you to pay them and call it a day," she said.

Another mother, 39-year-old Kathy A. Sorensen, had a different idea. It involved the timing of the strike - right at the beginning of the school year.

Next time, she said, the School Department should keep teachers from going on summer vacation until they have a contract in place for the new school year.

"I think everything would get done a lot quicker," she said.


Gov't union strike keeps Library closed

Vancouver Public Library doors remain shut more than 30 days into a labor strike by library staffers and municipal employees, and now VPL director Paul Whitney and CUPE (Canadian Union of Public Employees) Local 391 president Alex Youngberg are trading barbs in the press about the terms of the latest contract offer on the table. Characterizing Whitney's description of the offer as "insane," Youngberg disputed that Local 391, which represents library staffers, was asking for a 40 percent wage increase, as Whitney told Georgia Straight, a Vancouver weekly newspaper. "He's not giving librarians a very good reputation as far as math goes," she told the newspaper.

According to Youngberg, if the city agreed to all of the terms in the Local 391's latest offer, staffers would see a 29.5 percent increase in wages and benefits over a nine-year period. But Whitney argued that some of the contract's terms, such as an additional 4.5 percent wage increase for librarians and lowering the threshhold at which part-time employees can qualify for benefits, add up to "a lot of money," Whitney said. "We were pretty significantly taken aback by their latest offer."

The union offer includes provisions for pay equity that seek to redress gender imbalances in city-employee wages—a sticking point in the negotiations. An entry-level library staffer earns $15.31 CDN an hour, while the entry-level wage for other city employees is more than $20 an hour. "This is a female-dominated work force, this is long overdue," Youngberg told LJ last month.Whitney supplied the newspaper with entry-level librarian wage statistics from nine large Canadian cities. With an average hourly rate of $24.41, entry-level librarians in Vancouver earn the fourth-highest wages in the country. (Toronto librarians earn the most at $30.84 hour.)

CUPE members are writing a day-by-day account of the strike on their Bargaining Blog. The sympathetic Union Librarian blog, run by Kathleen de la Peña McCook, a professor of library and information science at the University of South Florida, Tampa, is tracking developments in Vancouver as well.


Seniority rules - but it shouldn't

Anyone who goes to a Police or Rolling Stones concert nowadays doesn't do so because those bands have been around the longest. Concertgoers still happen to like their music and have a choice: They like what they see and hear and choose to buy the tickets and music. Fans, one might say, see "merit" in the music and choose accordingly.

Contrast that with how striking Canadian Union of Public Employees locals in Vancouver appear to be demanding an end to merit in promotions, transfers and scheduling. Customers -- the taxpaying public and city officials who serve them -- must simply pay up and have no say in who gets to do what work other than time on the job.

Beyond the absurdity of Vancouver being forced to kill off merit as if skills and performance don't matter, polls over the years show that even a majority chunk of unionized employees don't like how union leaders favour seniority over merit, to say nothing of the public, which also wants merit used as the critical factor in workplace decisions.

But CUPE's locals have targeted merit; it's one of their many demands before they'll agree to return to work.

Local 15 wants seniority to govern promotions and transfers. Locals 15 and 391 want seniority rights applied to auxiliary employees; their scheduling and extra hours would be awarded according to a union pecking order instead of individual skills and results.

Local 1004 wants any disciplinary action removed from a personnel file after 36 months, as if past actions might not well predict future actions versus another unionized employee with a clean or cleaner performance record when serving taxpayers.

In attempting to bury merit beneath restrictive union seniority rules, CUPE is offside with the preferences of most Canadians and very possibly, the Vancouver workers forced to be CUPE members as a condition of employment under the various collective agreements.

In 2003, LabourWatch asked Leger Marketing to find out the views of Canadians on such matters. Leger found that 83 per cent of Canadians surveyed thought employee merit and performance should be more important in guiding the decision of an employer about promotions; only 14 per cent thought the seniority of an employee should be the decisive factor.

But here is the kicker in the poll: Among then unionized Canadians, 77 per cent thought merit should trump seniority.

Among formerly unionized employees, that figure jumped higher still; 87 per cent thought employee merit and performance should rank above length of service for a promotion.

Similarly, while Canadians were willing to consider a person's career length a bit more when it came to layoffs (24 per cent thought that factor should count the most when layoffs occur), fully 71 per cent still thought employee performance and merit should be the most important factor in deciding who should be laid off.

Here's another kicker for CUPE leaders: Even a majority of the currently unionized wanted merit over seniority!

In my discussions with pollsters across the country who do surveys for union leaders, the pollsters noted that union leaders often ignore the wishes of the employees they represent -- thus the wishes of those whose dues paid for the poll.

The Canadian Labour Congress, of which CUPE is a member, conducted its own poll in 2003, in part on why someone would or would not want to join a union.

Poll results revealed that 38 per cent of unionized respondents said they would very likely not vote for a union because of the presence of seniority provisions; 44 per cent of non-union respondents felt the same way about why they would be less likely to vote for union representation.

That most disagree with CUPE's anti-merit position should come as no surprise. Plenty of us have worked in environments where some colleague has been assigned work or promoted because of company connections or union seniority rules and not necessarily because they were the most qualified.

No one wants employees who have served long periods of time to be moved out their positions inappropriately. But layoffs and terminations are going to be less of an issue than ever because of a labour shortage and retiring baby boomers.

But most people quite reasonably don't like to see others get work, be promoted (and themselves held back) because of union rules or other factors unrelated to skills and results.

The City of Vancouver represents about 400,000 taxpayers in this dispute; CUPE represents 6,000 government workers. But when CUPE opposes merit as a principle in promotion, it is not likely representing even a majority of them with these demands.

John Mortimer is president of the non-profit Canadian LabourWatch Association and a Vancouver taxpayer.


Garbage dumped on lawn of Vancouver councillor

Two people upset with Vancouver's ongoing garbage strike took matters into their own hands Thursday, and spilled trash outside the home of a city councillor. "I looked out the window to see two individuals in black hoodies dumping garbage on my front lawn," Councillor Kim Capri told CTV British Columbia.

She joked that the strongest language she could muster was: "Hey, that's not very nice!" But it worked, and the pair ran off. Capri isn't the first politician targeted by pranksters fed up with the six-week old strike.

Last Friday, trash was strewn outside the condominium building of Mayor Sam Sullivan. Now, he's angry that one of his councillors was targeted. He called the littering an attempt at "intimidation" that could fuel further acts against politicians.

Vancouver's Anti-Poverty Committee has taken responsibility for both incidents and said it was acting in solidarity with striking outside workers.

But Barry O'Neil, president of CUPE British Columbia, denounced the pranksters and said the union doesn't want to target individual politicians.

"We don't think that the battle should be personal," he said. "It's not against Kim or any other councillor; it's about getting people back to work."

The Committee has gained notoriety by protesting against the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, which it blames for taking money and housing away from the city's poor.

The group has refused to speak with CTV News, because the network is the official broadcaster for the Games. But it did send a fax explaining its motives for dumping trash on Capri's lawn.


Teachers strike decimates district

When Littlestown (PA) students took seats today in their new classrooms at their new grade levels during the first day of school, the teachers standing in front of many of them were likewise experiencing something new.

Over the summer, Littlestown Area School District filled 32 vacant teaching positions, District Superintendent Robert McConaghy said. Previously, the district had reported 31 vacant positions.

As a new school year begins, the school board and teachers union are still trying to reach an agreement. Health care and salary have been the primary issues, which led to a 10-day strike last October.

Last year's strike might have some parents wondering if there will be a repeat of it this year. The strike pushed graduation last year back to June 15. "I can tell you there is no talk of a strike at this time," she said. "We're still actively negotiating with the board."

The school board made another offer to the union in July. Teachers were going to vote on the offer last week, but had questions about the salary schedule included in the offer, according to Motts. She said the focus of a meeting last Friday was to work on the details of the salary portion of the offer. Those details are still being worked out.

No further meetings have been set at this point, she said.

Teachers had two days of in-service training this week preparing for school to open.

McConaghy said the new teachers seem to be adjusting well to their new jobs, and he expected school to begin without a hitch.

"It should be a regular, good start," he said Tuesday.

The positions were vacated during the summer as teachers resigned, many of them because of the situation with the teachers contract.

"The teachers are saddened they are starting a new school year without so many of their colleagues," said union President Tina Motts. "Their skills, knowledge and experience are a great loss to the district."

But Motts feels the new teachers will adjust well, and said veteran teachers will serve as good mentors. New teachers met with their veteran counterparts at an orientation Aug. 20.


Vancouver hotel workers vote to strike

Workers in four of Vancouver's largest hotels have voted overwhelmingly in favour of a strike. The 1,400 workers at the Hyatt, Westin Bayshore, Renaissance, and Four Seasons hotels are members of Unite Here Local 40 and have been without a contract since June.

Saying their employers aren't taking them seriously, they have voted 85 per cent in favour of hitting the picket lines. The vote gives union leaders the authority to call a strike if they feel negotiations with the employer aren't going well.

If the union delivered on the threat, it would be a blow to a city which is already suffering through a six-week-old strike by government union members.

"I think we've met for 12 sessions up until now and we haven't received any offer whatsoever from the employers," said Randall Cooper, a banquet worker and member of the bargaining committee. "I think we've agreed on one very very minor bit of language and that is it."

The union wants higher wages and better benefits. They argue that the cost of living in Vancouver has skyrocketed in recent years, and that benefits and salaries have not kept up.

"I've worked 30 years in the business, and I am retiring in 13 days, and I'm only going to get $200 per month, so that's not a very good pension, is it?" said Carol Spence, who works at the Hyatt.

More talks are scheduled for mid-September.


Teachers in NY town authorize strike

At this time of year, Donna brown is usually worried about getting her son ready to head back to school. "Just finding out about this. I think it's really shocking,” said parent Donna Brown.

According to the Athens (NY) school board president, teachers voted to authorize a strike Tuesday night. That does not mean they've decided to strike. But it does mean union leaders can call a strike at anytime.

The strike would affect classes and extracurricular activities like sports. "My kids deserve a good education, granted the teachers deserve their pay as well,” said parent Heather Clark.

The board president tells us district officials have been negotiating a new contract for two years now, with no agreement. He says the sticking points are health benefits and salaries.

"I don't understand why this couldn't be resolved over summer when school was out. The only ones that are going to suffer are the kids,” said parent David Terkey.

The school board president tells us, the union and district officials are set to meet on September twentieth for negotiation talks.

He says he doubts a strike would start before then.

The union president did not return our phone calls for comment.

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