By a 3-2 vote Tuesday evening, the School Committee approved a two-year contract giving 380 members of the Warwick Independent School Employees (WISE) Union a 1.5 percent raise in August followed by an additional 1 percent raise in August 2014. WISE members unanimously ratified the agreement in a vote Sunday.
The agreement will cost schools an additional $437,501 for the two years according to an economic impact review prepared by chief budget officer Anthony Ferrucci.
But it will do far more than that in the opinion of WISE President Mary Townsend and committee chairwoman Bethany Furtado. Both see the agreement as giving the department more than two years of labor peace and helping put behind strained relationships that developed during the nearly six years the union was without a contract.
Nonetheless, the speed at which contract talks came up and were resolved without the knowledge of the full committee aggravated committee member Eugene Nadeau. Jennifer Ahearn, who was elected to the committee this past November, joined Nadeau in seeking to amend the agreement, or at least postpone a vote.
Nadeau said he first learned of an agreement when it came up in executive session about two weeks ago, at which point it was virtually “a fait accompli.” He questioned the rush. As the current contract doesn’t expire until August, he asked why wasn’t the full committee made aware of the talks and why the administration had only amended the rates of pay.
Nadeau didn’t begrudge raises, but not to know they were being discussed or being involved in the process had him outraged.
“We deserve better than this,” he said, looking at Rosemary Healey, department counsel and human services director who worked with Townsend in coming to the agreement. Healey explained that an extension was raised shortly after Christmas and that the union made it clear that it would be happy dealing with only the salary portion of the pact. Healey said she informed Furtado who concurred with the proceeding.
Citing budget pressures on the department, Nadeau felt measures could have been taken to reduce costs by restructuring portions of the contract.
“How can you renew a 73-page contract with [other than wages] no changes whatsoever?” he asked.
As he sought to do when the contract came up about 18 months ago, Nadeau offered a series of amendments. He proposed that the word “seniority” throughout the contract be replaced with “most qualified.”
“Seniority reduces the ability for improvements to be made,” he said. “How can you justify that all be paid the same increase? It should be based on merit.”
Nadeau gained Ahern’s vote, but the amendment died with the “no” votes of Furtado, Terri Medeiros and Karen Bachus. The same happened when Nadeau sought to strike “the insidious word ‘bumping’” from the contract. This time the vote was 2-2, with Medeiros abstaining. He said the practice “defies description by enabling senior employees to knock others out of positions where they are doing an excellent job.”
Nadeau also wanted to take longevity out of the contract, noting how employees with 10 years tenure get a 5 percent pay increase that keeps going up in increments of 5 percent every five years until 25 years.
“That’s a 20 percent increase for doing nothing but being in the position. I don’t know of anybody with a similar contract. If we keep paying, we’ve got to have more money,” he said.
Medeiros disagreed. She reasoned them as incentives designed to keep people.
“I think longevity can only improve business,” she said.
“We’re talking millions and we should be reducing our budget,” Nadeau countered.
Nadeau also targeted benefits for part-time employees, vacation time and sick leave.
Healey said there are no longer any part-time employees and, contrary to Nadeau’s reading of the contract, the maximum vacation is 19 days, not eight weeks.
On the issue of sick leave, Nadeau reasoned employees should not be permitted to accumulate more than 40 days. The contract specifies 115 days.
“Is it better that they use their sick days?” asked Bachus.
Nadeau maintained that he thought 40 is fairer and more in line with the private sector.
“Because they do that in the bank [Nadeau worked for a bank before retiring], we should do that here?” Bachus fired back. “Unfortunately, we live in a society today that doesn’t take care of its employees,” she added. The amendment failed by the 3-2 vote.
Nadeau then sought to add contract language that strikes and work stoppages would not be tolerated and employees engaging in them would be dismissed immediately.
Healey saw no need for it, as the law prohibits strikes and the committee has the right to fire employees.
“I usually don’t try bargaining for rights we already have,” she quipped.
“You’ve got the law on your side, Gene,” said Medeiros.
But that didn’t mollify Nadeau. He reiterated his annoyance that not all committee members knew of the talks.
In prefacing discussion of the contract, Healey commended the union for helping complete fire code improvements last summer so that schools opened on time. She also said, “It is vitally important that we treat employees fairly and equitably.”
Acting superintendent Richard D’Agostino said union members know they are a valued part of the community. He said they are “walking taller” and “are a functional part of the school system.”
With privatization of the special education busing, school closings and other reductions, the union ranks have been cut from 450 to 380.
As the committee prepared to vote on the contract, Healey reasoned the raises are a means of saying, “Thank you and keep up the good work,” although she added that they don’t cover the increased cost of living.
“We can’t, year after year, balance the budget on the backs of employees,” she said.
Furtado doubted anything would have been gained by protracted talks and she welcomed the point, “where we don’t have to yell and scream across the aisle.”
Townsend said union members love the children and step up to the plate and go beyond the contract to ensure the system works for the benefit of the students. She noted that union members have taken on new security measures implemented in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre.
“I’m happy to have labor peace,” she said. “It puts everyone back in business working with the kids.”