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Hammering Out a Contract: Exploiting Low-Paid Workers at a Vo-Tech School

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by Walter and Rosemary Brasch

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Art Welch, the in-school suspension supervisor at the Columbia-Montour Area Vocational Technical School (Vo-Tech) in Bloomsburg, Pa., earns $8 an hour, only 75 cents above minimum wage. In the six years he has been at Vo-Tech, he has never had a raise.

Mary Avery, who has worked in the cafeteria for 28 years, earns $9 an hour; some years, she only received a nickel an hour increase.

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Wendy Zajac, who also works in the cafeteria, has been employed at Vo-Tech seven years; she is the only one of a bargaining unit of 25 workers who received a raise in four years. She now earns $7.25 an hour. The school's management had no choice except to raise her salary so it would be in compliance with the federally-mandated minimum wage.

Welch, Avery, Zajac, and 22 others, went on strike in March after more than three years of patiently waiting for the school's Joint Operating Committee (JOC) to ratify a contract. The support staff had voted in October 2006 to become a part of the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA). Since then, there have been no raises and no contract for the school's lowest-paid workers, many of whom are forced to work second jobs; three are receiving public assistance, their wages so low they fall below the federal poverty line. More than half of the members of the bargaining unit have annual wages below $22,050, the federal poverty line for a family of four; about one-third have salaries barely above $14,570, the federal poverty line for two persons.

In an industry in which degrees matter, and which usually result in higher wages, the support staff, about half of whom have at least an associate's degree, are not compensated for their post-high school education.

Prior to Summer 2005, when the last raises were given, pay raises were haphazard, says Welch. Paula Fritz, who has been at Vo-Tech 25 years, cites a case where the male custodians one year received 50-cent an hour raises, but she, the only female custodian, received a raise of only 35 cents an hour. "There was no logic behind it, no evaluations, and I was sure that it was based upon gender rather than performance," says Fritz.

Dr. Thomas Rushton, Vo-Tech's administrative director and former principal, simply declares that wage increases "come from the JOC." While technically correct, prior to Rushton becoming administrator during the middle of the contract negotiation, wage increases were always recommended by the principal and administrator. In addition to arbitrary pay raises, Vo-Tech never had a formal evaluation process for its staff until three years ago. It also has a history of arbitrary hiring practices, with senior administrators hiring friends and colleagues; never in the school's history has it employed a female in any of the top five administrative slots.

The Vo-Tech, opened in 1969, has about 700 students in 17 training programs. Seven local public school districts are "sending schools"; the Vo-Tech JOC, essentially a school board, is comprised of 14 members, two from the boards of each district. A major problem with the JOC/Vo-Tech system is its unwieldy structure and a perceived, although not open, bias against vocational-technical training. Board members and the public say they support the concept of vocational and technical training programs in high school, but the reality is that some don't necessarily believe that Vo-Tech education is parallel to that of the other public schools. Board members who voted against the proposed contract have given workers in their home districts better contracts and wages than they do for Vo-Tech. The low wages has led to a heavy turnover among administration at the Vo-Tech. "I'm on my sixth principal in 12 years," says Holly Diltz, union president and the school's Child Accounting/Transportation Specialist and administrative specialist for the Pennsylvania Information Management System.

Several members of the JOC claim they are merely watching out for the public, that economic times are bad, and that the $4.30 an hour raise spread over a five year contract, which was asked for by the union was too much. However, even with heavy turnover and generally lower incoming salaries, the JOC granted its five administrators a combined $22,367 raise between their 20062007 and 20092010 salaries. It also granted in the 20092010 school year a combined $10.60 an hour raise to four employees of the classified non-union staff, and a $6,190 raise over two years to its adult education coordinator. The current administrative director earns $85,348 a year; the principal earns $70,000 a year; the business manager earns $68,000 a year. The school has also already paid its lawyer almost $22,000 to negotiate its side of the contract. However, the union estimates the cost by the time the contract is settled will be closer to $31,000. Labor lawyers in Pennsylvania typically earn $200$350 an hour, or about 2030 times an hour that of the bargaining unit's median wage.

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Contrary to claims of protecting taxpayer interest, Vo-Tech has about a $1.5 million surplus, about 20 percent of its budget. Because it receives funding from the seven sending districts and not directly from the taxpayers, it isn't restricted to the state-mandated 8 percent limit. Rushton says that the balance isn't a "surplus," but a "fund balance." Because of heavy costs associated with the maintenance of equipment not used by other public schools, Vo-Tech needs a balance higher than other schools. Diltz says a balance is necessary; but says the current balance is excessive, especially since she was responsible for writing about $500,000 in grants over a three year period that covered significant equipment repair and replacement. She earns $23,000 a year.

If the Committee would agree to the proposal currently on the table, it wouldn't even increase the proposed budget," says Welch, one of the union's negotiators and budget specialists, who points out the raises have already been figured into the budget.

A tentative agreement had been reached, and signed off by lawyers for both Management and the workers. But in December 2009, the JOC arbitrarily declared it wanted 44 substantive changes; several of the changes involved items previously proposed by the JOC, agreed to by the union, and then deliberately changed by Committee negotiators. A 101 vote blocked acceptance of the tentative contract. Among those who voted against the contract were the director who had moved to accept the contract, the director who had seconded that motion and, surprisingly, two board members who are retired teachers, both of whom were PSEA members.

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Walter Brasch is an award-winning journalist and professor of journalism emeritus. His current books are Before the First Snow: Stories from the Revolution , America's Unpatriotic Acts: The Federal Government's Violation of (more...)

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