State backs Vancouver school district in labor dispute

Officials, union at odds over cutting work hours

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A state agency has dismissed a complaint by a Vancouver school employees union against its district. But that doesn’t mean the conflict between labor and management is over.

The Public Employees Relations Commission in a 14-page document sided with Vancouver Public Schools in the district’s contract dispute with the Vancouver Association of Educational Support Professionals. The union filed the complaint Sept. 9, alleging that the district had not bargained in good faith during labor negotiations.

Stephen Irvin, an examiner with the commission, shot down that allegation in the PERC decision.

“The duty to engage in frank and full discussion on disputed issues … is the same for the employer and the union,” he wrote. “It is clear that the union did not begin to take that duty seriously.”

But a union official on Wednesday told The Columbian that the dismissal of the complaint does not mean the union has to accept a contract the district unilaterally imposed last year.

The troubles began in May 2010, when the union and the district began discussing a new contract that would replace the agreement set to expire that August.

The union — which represents teachers’ aides, clerical and technical staff, and secretaries — and the school district agreed on almost every part of the proposed new collective bargaining agreement.

But the one difference in opinion between the parties quickly seemed insurmountable. The district added language to the contract that would allow it to reduce employees’ hours if needed, such as when the state cut its budget.

The union balked at the new language, insisting on going back to the previous model, which only allowed the district to cut entire positions, not reduce hours or pay for members.

For more than a year the parties battled over the issue. The district slightly revised the disputed portion of the contract, but the union didn’t budge in its refusal to accept any version of the reduced-hours proposal.

The union stood its ground mainly because reductions in hours would

mean that employees would see their health benefits shrink or disappear, Lynn Davidson, a union official, told The Columbian on Wednesday.

“Some of our members just work for the benefits,” she said. “They’ve worked their way up to eight-hour positions.”

But the district pushed for the flexibility it needed to deal with state education budgets that consistently had decreased during the recession and were expected to shrink further, according to a statement by the school board president at the time.

In June 2011, the union presented what it called a “best and final offer,” which did not include the district’s work-time language. In August, the union offered to consider a pay cut of 1 percent, according to the PERC documents. But still no movement on the reductions in hours.

On Sept. 1, 2011, the district unilaterally imposed a new two-year labor contract, which it is allowed to do one year after the previous bargaining agreement has expired, according to state law. A week later, the union filed the complaint with the state.

And later that month, union members passed a no-confidence vote against Superintendent Steve Webb.

The union was “disappointed” over the dismissal of the complaint, the union’s Davidson said Wednesday.

“But it’s not over,” she said. “It’s hard to bargain back hours and pay once they’re gone. But when workload increases, (entire positions) come back.”

The union membership never ratified the agreement imposed by the district and the district hasn’t enforced any portion of that contract, she said.

Base hourly wages under the expired contract ranged from $13.85 for a beginning paraeducator to $21.38 for a secretary with 26 years of service.

Union members are meeting Thursday to discuss what concessions to make on the reduced-hour issue, she said. And when the union offers those concessions, the two parties will have to go back to the negotiating table, Davidson said.

“The rule doesn’t prevent us from bargaining,” she said.

A district official saw things differently.

“We’re thankful that the matter is finally resolved,” said Missy Hallead, the district’s director of human resources. “The district is under no obligation to bargain.”

Jacques Von Lunen: 360-735-4515; jacques.vonlunen@columbian.com;http://www.twitter.com/col_schools.