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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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.
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