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2 Sides In City's Snack Flap

October 2, 2005

Union bashers and backers alike have stories of organized labor work rules that appear to defy common sense.

As a teenager in the '70s, I helped my neighbor set up exhibits at the old New York Coliseum. We could use twist ties, but we'd need a union guy at wildly high rates for at least two hours if we wanted to screw, nail or tape anything.

More recently, there was the aerospace manufacturing firm in Newington that had to keep a crucial machine dark for the day if the guy assigned to that job didn't make it to work.

Joining this tradition of head-scratching rules is the Hartford snack flap, which threatens to leave children in after-school and Saturday programs without the nourishment they need to stay focused.

On the surface, it's a classic case of an illogical, overly rigid union position. It is certainly that, but as is often the case, there's more to the story - and plenty of blame to go around on both sides.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 566, representing Hartford school food service workers, has the right to work any time food is distributed to children in a school cafeteria. If the task falls outside their regular hours - which the after-school programs appear to do - union workers have the right to at least three hours of overtime.

For at least five years, the food service workers have prepared the snacks - typically milk or juice, a piece of fruit, some crackers - and left them, properly stored, for the people running the after-school programs to hand out later. The union filed a grievance in 2001, saying - correctly, according to a Sept. 7 arbitration award - that it also had the right to the distribution work under its contract.

The contract appears unambiguous on the legal point, which makes one wonder why it took four years of bickering to get to this juncture.

The school board argued that snacks are not part of the contract, and that the union's position threatens the schools' ability to help families. The board brings in community-based groups to run the after-school programs. The groups are obviously on the scene, ready and able to set aside 10 minutes to hand out snacks, with help from school employees, if necessary.

Hiring one food service worker at time-and-a-half at each of the 31 program locations would cost about $1,200 a day, or more than $200,000 a year - money the school system doesn't have, despite its history of bloated administrative ranks and overpaid consultants.

So we're stuck. As of Friday, with the programs set to open for the season this month, school folks were frantically arranging to skirt the rules by working with parent-teacher organizations. It's unclear whether that will pass muster.

The AFSCME isn't backing down from its insistence that the work should be done by the people who are trained to do it.

"The food service workers are in charge of a healthy, clean, safe environment," said Mark Blumenthal, president of Local 566 and a head custodian at Maria Sanchez School. "They're not just people that go there and hand out a cookie."

He argues that the schools are paying hidden costs by having higher-paid people, such as school administrators, do the work.

It's hard to see that logic. In fact, school spokesman Terry D'Italia claims, many of the food service people - who typically work 20 hours a week - have other jobs or family obligations that would prevent them from working the after-school and Saturday overtime.

But the deeper question is: How and why did it get to the point where the union is forced to defend the indefensible?

The answer in this case is that a hard-headed school administration has refused to negotiate in good faith, refused to recognize a legal right that the union earned through bargaining, refused, in short, to deal with the issue as the broad economic and human concern that it is.

These food service employees - who are overwhelmingly Hartford city residents - earn between $9 and $10 an hour, hardly enough to qualify them as greedy monsters causing neighborhood kids to go hungry.

"This case underscores the lack of respect," said Larry Dorman, spokesman for AFSCME Council 4. "They didn't want to talk about solutions. I, personally, am incredulous to hear from the administration's hired guns that $10-an-hour food service workers who live in the city of Hartford and who care about the children of Hartford are somehow going to be responsible for the demise of snacks. It is the height of disingenuity."

D'Italia says the union has rejected every proposal the school system offered. But the offers amounted to nothing more than allowing the union to continue receiving the work of preparing the snacks.

That's not an offer. That's just saying, in effect, "You give us back this right and we'll let you keep that other right that you already have."

The right to three hours of overtime to hand out snacks, absurd as it is, came to the union in exchange for something else, sometime in the past. Maybe it was more money. Maybe it was better benefits or other work rules. Rights do not land in contracts by accident without something coming across the table to balance them.

The point is that a school system can't just yank a right away from people making basically poverty wages without giving something in return.

Instead, according to Blumenthal, Ann F. Bird, a lawyer for the city assigned to the schools, issued an implied threat on Friday, Sept. 23, that she would take the issue to the press and make the union look bad.

Bird, in response, said she did not threaten to publicize the story and did not do so and that neither she nor any school officials did so.

"I said that it could present a public relations problem for both of us," Bird said.

Logic and common sense are victims, along with children in this case, but the perpetrators are employers who don't respect contracts along with unionists who enforce unworkable rights.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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