(Updated) AFSCME leaders got a second stunning setback Friday as they tried to make labor peace in tough times.
Custodians in New Haven schools Friday voted 92 to 50 to reject a labor contract crafted as a compromise that would save them from wholesale privatization of their jobs. The contract would have cut the school system’s custodial workforce, eased work rules, turned the lowest-paid janitors into non-union labor, and revised previously agreed-upon wages and health and pension benefits. The vote took place by secret ballot from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Friday at High School In The Community at 155 Water St.
“The body has spoken,” declared Kenneth Woodson (at left in photo) as he left the polling station clapping his hands at 5:15 p.m. after the vote was announced. Woodson was one of the 92 proud “no” votes. After nine years as a custodian, he said, “I would have lost everything that I worked hard to achieve” under the proposed contract.
The tentative labor agreement between the city and union leadership aimed to settle a long-running, acrimonious battle over privatizing custodial work. Two years after the last labor contract expired, AFSCME Council 4 Local 287 President Robert Montuori and city Labor Relations Director Craig Manemeit struck the deal last week in order to avoid a decision through arbitration, where each side could face losing the whole privatization question.
Click here to read the terms of the proposed agreement.
Friday’s rejection mirrors a devastating setback at the state level, where AFSCME leaders also struck what they saw as a job-saving deal in a tough economy, only to have it rejected by the union rank-and-file.
State government workers are now taking a second vote on a contract renegotiation with the Malloy administration. After the deal failed to get initial approval, Malloy sent out 3,000 layoff notices—sending panic through organized labor’s ranks and provoking near-universal public outrage at a time of economic hardship.
AFSCME Council 4 spokesman Larry Dorman (at right in photo with Montuori), the public face of the state employees’ union coalition that battled Malloy on the labor contract, declined to make any connection between the two defeats.
“I don’t see any parallels,” Dorman said in a press conference after the vote. “This is a very specific fight that has been going on in New Haven for a long time.”
“There’s absolutely no” disconnect between union leaders and the rank-and-file, Dorman maintained.
At the state level, Dorman had complained that a campaign of misinformation subverted the deal. Dorman said that wasn’t the case in New Haven.
Custodians were well-informed about the deal, he said. They had three informational meetings that lasted over three hours each.
Local 287 President Montuori said he had supported the deal because “I thought it was reasonable in terms of saving 100 jobs when we could be faced with everyone getting tossed out.”
The contract now proceeds for a final decision by a three-man panel of arbitrators, who have been considering the contract for the past year. One arbitrator was picked by the city, one by the union and one was agreed upon by both parties.
AFSCME’s Kevin Murphy, the union’s hand-picked arbitrator on the panel, said the union leaders felt it was right to bring the membership to the table by presenting the offer to them.
He said the rank-and-file rejected the deal because “the membership had their mind set that we don’t want to be kicked around anymore.” He said arbitrators had put proceedings on hold because the negotiations were making the most progress they’d ever made in the past two-and-a-half years. Both sides have submitted their “last, best offers”; Murphy said it would likely be at least another month before arbitrators make a final decision.
Meanwhile, Dorman said the union would “keep the dialogue open” with the city’s labor department in case they want to renegotiate a deal before the arbitrators decide their fate.
DeStefano: It’s A Sign Of The Times
“I’m open to having discussions with them, but after 25 months, the process needs to end,” Mayor John DeStefano said in a 7 p.m. press conference in the mayor’s conference room in City Hall. He said he expects a final decision from arbitrators in September or October.
DeStefano called the offer a “good contract” that would have included wage hikes, maintained a defined-benefit retirement plan, and kept 100 jobs, with a promise not to lay off those workers. And it would have saved taxpayers $4 million in the current fiscal year, he said.
He said the rejection now puts the decision in the hands of three arbitrators instead of in the hands of the city, school district and union members. DeStefano said “frankly, what we’ll get out of binding arbitration wouldn’t be much worse”—the city’s last best offer was more aggressive and would save $6 million in the first year, he said.
The mayor said he was “disappointed” but “not surprised” by the vote. He pointed to the rancorous debt ceiling battle in Congress this week, followed by the plunging of the stock market.
“I think people are anxious, they’re frightened, they’re concerned about their futures, and they’re worried, and I think oftentimes that gets expressed by people saying no.”
“It just characterizes the time in which we’re in,” he said.
The school board had been poised to approve the deal at a meeting Monday. The meeting has been canceled because the deal fell through, according to schools Superintendent Reggie Mayo.
“The Best For All Of Us”
Dorothy Greene (pictured) was one of the 50 who voted “yes” on the contract, even though it might have cost her her job cleaning Wilbur Cross High School.
Greene was one of the first few dozen custodians who streamed into the polling station Friday to cast their votes.
She entered the building along with a half-dozen men who said they’d be voting “no” on the contract. Both sides had the same thing on their minds: Jobs.
Greene, who has only two-and-half years on the job, said she’d likely be among the workers who would lose their jobs under the proposed contract. But she considered it a better choice than the alternative—heading to arbitration and potentially losing all 157 unionized jobs.
“It’s the right thing to do” for the greater good, Greene reasoned.
The tentative agreement covers a six-year period that began July 1, 2009 and ends June 30, 2015. It would have cut the number of unionized school maintenance employees from the current 157 (and a previous high of around 200) to 130 by Dec. 31, then to 100 by next July 1. The categories of maintenance employees represented by the union would have shrunk to include drivers, building managers, assistant building managers, and “floaters” who swing from school to school when regular staffers are sick. Each school would have had a full-time on-site union custodian. The Board of Ed would have been able to hire other custodians on its own, outside the union. Much of the cleaning would have taken place at night with non-union custodians.
The end result would have left 100 more jobs than custodians might have if the DeStefano administration has its way and privatizes the whole custodial force, Greene reasoned.
“This will save at least 100 jobs,” she said.
Union “Sold Us Down The River”
Pulling up in a Board of Education pickup truck, a man who gave his name as Spike had a different take.
“I’m voting no,” announced the 57-year-old truck driver, who has 27 years on the job. Spike said he was rejecting the contract in order to save the jobs of his less senior union members.
“I don’t want to see them lose their jobs,” he said.
Spike said he’d rather cast his lot with the arbitrators than accept the deal struck by his union leaders.
“I think the union sold us down the river,” he opined. “Somebody threw in the towel here.”
Greene and Spike both agreed that much of the union rank-and-file appears to be heading for a “no” vote.
A group of four motorcycle-riding custodians eating pizza at a picnic table gave some evidence of that claim.
“This is a ‘no’ party,” one said. They declined to elaborate on why they’re voting no.
Another custodian, who declined to give his name, said he had been on the fence until the last moment, and decided to vote “no” as well.
At 60 years old, he’s been on the job for 11 years. He said he could retire under the contract, but “not with a decent pension.” If he retires, he would get a pension of $650 per month. “I can’t live on that,” he said.
Employees would pay more toward their pension and health insurance plans (from 6 to 9 percent in both cases) under the deal.
“Also I care about the young guys—I’m not optimistic about those guys” if they get laid off. They have families, and it will be hard for them to find other work, he reasoned.
“A lot of people are saying ‘no,’” Greene said. “I don’t think people understand. I just don’t think they’re looking at the full picture.”
The full picture, she said, is that the union isn’t going to do any better through the arbitration process.
Under the proposed deal, departing workers would have received a package ranging from $5,000 to $20,000 for voluntarily retiring. After that, if layoffs occur, they’d be based on employees’ “two-year history of attendance and discipline.” If employees had similar histories, only then would layoffs take place based on seniority.
Custodial workers would get no wage increases for the first two years of the contract already passed and 2 percent increases a year over the next two years. The two sides would negotiate the increase for the final two years in the future.