Vancouver school workers file labor complaint

By Howard Buck, Columbian staff writer

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Unfair labor practices claim filed against Vancouver Public Schools

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Frustrated Vancouver school district support employees won’t hint at what might occur, or not, Monday at schools.

But the standoff between district administrators and the nonteaching employee group of school secretaries, clerical staff, technology aides and paraeducators — more than 600 workers — ratcheted up another notch on Friday.

The Vancouver Association of Educational Support Professionals officially filed an unfair labor practice complaint in Olympia against the district, the union announced.

The complaint made to the Washington state Public Employment Relations Commission alleges in a Statement of Facts that the district has not bargained in good faith, and continues still to turn down opportunities to meet with the VAESP bargaining team.

Instead, the group said, the district unilaterally imposed, on Sept. 1, a collective bargaining agreement through August 2013 that combines elements on which both sides had agreed but also includes layoff and recall procedures the union finds unacceptable.

The objectionable language remains, even though the VAESP proposed that workers’ pay be reduced by $145,000 this school year to meet the district’s budget needs, the union said.

In its Request for Relief, the union asks PERC to issue “an order requiring the (district) to cease and desist from refusing to bargain” on the problematic language. It further asks that the district be barred from “interfering with, restraining or coercing members of the bargaining unit in the exercise of their right to organize and bargain collectively.”

Also, the union asks for the award of back pay and benefits to any employees who lose work hours, days or their jobs before the conflict is resolved.

“These things take time, and you cover all your bases,” said Lynn Davidson, regional UniServ union representative for the VAESP, on Friday. She’s not aware of any workers’ being laid off or having their schedules reduced so far, she said.

Davidson said she expects legal teams from both sides to testify before a state hearing officer in a process that could take weeks. Meanwhile, the union refuses to recognize the imposed contract, which the district describes on its website.

“For some reason, the district thinks that we don’t have to take a vote on this contract. We filed the protest because it’s not valid,” Davidson said.

District’s perspective

Hours earlier on Friday, Vancouver district officials posted an “Open Letter to the Community” attributed to school board President Mark Stoker.

Stoker provides an overview of budget stresses that guided district decisions and negotiation, plus an arbitration ruling that appears to construe only the complete elimination of a work position, rather than reduction in work schedules, under the terms of the previous VAESP contract.

As a result, the district sought to add flexibility in work scheduling, a step it deems “necessary to continue fulfilling its educational mission,” Stoker wrote.

A recent directive from Gov. Chris Gregoire for state agencies to brace for a new round of 5 to 10 percent budget cuts, due to further dismal state revenue estimates, only underscores that need, Stoker wrote.

The layoff and recall protocol changes “provide equal treatment of VAESP employees with all other employee groups” within the district, Stoker wrote.

On its website, the district has posted its side of the negotiations conflict and ensuing breakdown.

Monday mystery

All this week, the two sides weren’t speaking directly, Davidson said.

“They have an open invitation to go back to the bargaining table, and they have not attempted to get hold of us at all,” she said. The union still has not received a written copy of the imposed contract, she said.

Davidson said a hectic first week of school prevented union discussions at all district buildings, as earlier planned. Those meetings are scheduled in the coming week, she said.

As for Monday — a day previously signaled out for potential worker action, as it is a baseline student enrollment checkpoint for state school reporting (and funding) purposes — Davidson offered no clues.

“No, I can’t tell” what the union’s plans were, she said.

Howard Buck: 360-735-4515; http://twitter.com/col_schools; howard.buck@columbian.com.