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School Unions Halt Contract Negotiations

Tuesday May 20, 2003

Negotiations between a second school union and the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) collapsed Thursday in a dispute over health care coverage. Talks with another union had stalled the week before. 

The two unions, representing about 500 school district employees, from secretaries to bus drivers, have both declared a formal impasse in negotiations. If the state’s Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) rules that contract talks have indeed reached a standstill, it will assign state mediators to intervene. A PERB decision on one of the two impasse declarations is expected by the end of the week. 

Union officials said the chief sticking point in negotiations is the district’s attempt to place a cap on health care costs, freezing its annual expenditure for each employee at $9,200, and passing the cost of rising premiums to workers. 

District officials say the move is necessary given that the schools face a $4 million to $8 million budget shortfall and health care costs are projected to rise 20 percent next year.  

“We’re trying to contain costs — not just in health and welfare, but across the board,” said Eric Smith, district associate superintendent for business and operations. District officials said they were disappointed by the unions’ decisions to declare an impasse, but union officials said they had no choice. 

“We had a situation where we kept getting back the same proposals, which were unacceptable,” said Ann Graybeal, president of the Berkeley Council of Classified Employees (BCCE), American Federation of Teachers, Local 6192, which represents about 330 teachers’ aides, library technicians, secretaries and accountants, among others. 

Graybeal said her union, which declared an impasse May 8, is not yet ready for a strike. 

“I don’t think any of us would use that word at this point,” she said. “There’s still a lot of work to be done.” 

Stationary Engineers, Local 39, which represents 160 bus drivers, custodians, food service workers, maintenance workers and safety officers, declared an impasse Thursday. Both Local 39 and BCCE have been operating without a contract since July 2002. 

Local 39 and BCCE members currently get full dental and health care plans, paying nothing for visits to the doctor and $1 for prescriptions. If the district has its way, employees would face co-payments of $10 to $20 for doctors’ visits or prescriptions next year, according to officials. 

“It’s a huge takeaway,” said Stephanie Allan, business representative for Local 39. 

Samuel Scott, Jr., a general maintenance worker who serves on the Local 39 bargaining team, said his health care plan currently covers two children and a fiancee with chronic back problems who goes to therapy three times a week. If co-payments jumped to $10 per visit, he said, he would spend at least $120 per month on health care costs. 

“I have three people to provide for and $120 per month would hurt,” he said. 

Union officials say they are also concerned about proposals to cut back on some employees’ hours and eliminate an incentive clause in the last contract which provides four days’ pay to any employee who doesn’t take a sick day during the year. 

“They proposed all kinds of takebacks which were effectively cuts in income,” said Graybeal. 

But Tina Brier, the district’s director of classified personnel, said management offered to withdraw many of the “takebacks” for Local 39 in exchange for agreement on the health care cap, and was about to make the same offer to BCCE when that union declared an impasse. 

“They didn’t get to see all our cards because they didn’t give us the opportunity,” Brier said. 

The district is set to meet with BCCE Wednesday. The union’s chief negotiator, Richard Hemann, said he does not expect significant progress on the major stumbling blocks. 

“I doubt very much that the impasse will be resolved,” he said. 

Local 39 and BCCE have represented the district’s “classified employees” — most of its non-teaching staff — since last May, when they wrested control from another union, Local 1, through a workers’ vote.