DUBOIS – Calling it a campaign for a living wage, the DuBois Education Support Professional Association-Pennsylvania State Educators Association issued a 48-hour strike notice to the DuBois Area School District. The DESPA will on strike Thursday morning.
“We had no choice but to strike. We have tried everything else to get this contract settled. There were no options left. The school board has refused to compromise. The school board refused to treat us with respect, so we have no other choice but to conduct a work stoppage, said DESPA President Sandy Kiehlmeier. “The board canceled our negotiations session on Monday. We are ready to meet 24 hours a day to settle this stalemate. Now the ball is in their court. We are asking the community to get involved by asking the board to meet us halfway.”
For the 100 members of the DuBois Education Support Personnel Association — it has been a discouraging and demoralizing three-and-a-half years. The association, which represents secretaries and aides, has been at the bargaining table since January 2003. The contract expired June 2003.
“These are the workers who keep our schools going. They are the heart and soul of the schools. They are secretaries who organize our schools. They are dedicated aides who work with your children each day. They are also taxpayers and have families of their own to support. They rely upon the jobs to support their families. Almost all of us earn less than $20,000 a year,” said Kiehlmeier.
One of the main issues is the district’s attempt to hurt union members by putting language into the contract that would allow only 11- or 12- month full-time employees to get health care coverage, according to the release. Beginning March, the district forced nine-month support staff workers to work 11 months, even though many of these employees had no work to do because students and teachers were not in the classrooms in the summer.
The association believes that if the district is successful in changing the contract to give only full-time employees health care coverage, the school board may eventually shift many of the positions back to nine months, which could threaten health insurance benefits.
“It is ludicrous that all of these employees were showing up to work all summer, many with nothing to do. We believe that the district’s goal is to eventually cut back the schedules and denying benefits for these positions,” said Kiehlmeier. “These are the working class of our community. These workers are supporting their families with their income and their health care benefits. The board is using stealth tactics to bust the union.”
DESPA has filed a grievance against the board’s decision to unilaterally change the work schedules of employees from nine to 11 months.
The other main issue in bargaining is the inequity in how the board wants to treat new and part-time employees, according to the DESPA.
“The board is trying to split our association by making it look like they are providing a great deal by giving more money to cover the increase in health care costs. However, anyone applying for an open full-time position would not get an offset to cover the increases,” said Kiehlmeier. “We should not be hurting employees by diminishing their health care benefits.”
Union leaders said they are willing to accept changes in healthcare to help defray the rising costs of healthcare, but they are asking the board members to be reasonable in the amounts of the premiums for support staff. The board’s current proposal would mean that some employees would make less money in five years than this year because of the exorbitant increase in healthcare premiums.
Under the state’s bargaining law, Act 88, the support staff workers can legally strike. However, the union members will lose pay for each day they stay on the picket lines.
“This was a very touch decision for our members. They are losing their pay to stand up for what they believe. This takes a lot of courage. But we all believe that it is time that the school board treats us with respect and comes to the table ready to compromise,” added Kiehlmeier. “This is not just a personal battle, but a fight for the future of the working class in DuBois.”
A negotiations session was session was scheduled for Monday evening, but the school board canceled it, according to Kiehlmeier. No other negotiations session are planned at this time.