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CURMUDGEON'S CORNER: Union's 'strike' had nothing to do with education (OPINION)

September 11, 2012

As you probably know, Monday of last week was scheduled to be orientation day for school department faculty and staff. The Educational Support Professionals (“ESP”) bargaining unit met and decided on a “work stoppage” for everyone except the year-round, hourly paid clerks who would be the only employees to suffer financial harm if they didn’t report to their offices.
The president of the teachers’ bargaining unit, which still has a year to go in its contract with the district, notified Superintendent of Schools Phil Auger that they had voted not to cross the ESP picket line “in a show of solidarity”.
The school committee met with the ESP executive board for eight hours on Monday and some progress was reportedly being made. The deal breaker was the outsourcing of 26 school janitor positions to GCA Services, a private building maintenance company. Finally, at 11 p.m. the school committee members told the union it was going home.
Early Tuesday morning when Dr. Auger arrived at the central administration building, he was greeted with a picket line of ESP and teachers handing out “informational flyers”.
The superintendent decided to cancel the first day of classes even though some students had already been picked up by school busses.
Dr. Auger has been criticized by some for this decision particularly since the union spin is that they were not on strike. But really, what choice did he have? What would parents have said if their kids were dropped off and there were no teachers or paraprofessionals there?
On Tuesday afternoon, the school committee legal counsel filed a motion in Superior Court to enjoin any work stoppage by either union. Judge David Stern told the unions to go to work and both parties to continue negotiations. Dr. Auger handled the decision with gratitude. ESP union president Nancy Ferenko was not so tactful. She told a TV reporter the union “wants their custodians back”.
Judge Stern had earlier denied a union motion that would have required the school department rescind the contract with GCA. He ruled that a reduction in pay may be a financial hardship but does not rise to the level of irreparable harm required for an injunction. The union calls this “Economic Violence”.
Having failed in Superior Court, the unions turned to the court of public opinion to stage another protest rally at the school committee meeting scheduled for Tuesday evening. There are reports that the parent union of both the support staff and teachers bussed in union agitators, some from out of state.
This action should decry the myth that this contract negotiation has anything to do with “the students”. Do any of the union protestors bussed in care a whit about North Kingstown’s kids? No, it’s all about the threat to public employee union power.
The union is concerned that cafeteria workers could be next on the outsourcing list ... and well they should be. North Kingstown is the last in-house food service department in the state. Since fiscal year 2006, it has lost nearly $1.1 million dollars – money that could have been spent on “the students”.
Are we to believe the school department should be a jobs program for about two dozen part-time workers? Or, should North Kingstown join all the other districts that have their cafeterias run at a break-even or perhaps turn a surplus?
School committee member Bill Mudge protested a motion to move public comment to the end of the evening’s agenda. He incorrectly argued that such a motion requires a two-thirds vote of the entire committee. Robert’s Rules of Order require that two-thirds of just the quorum present needs to approve a change in the published agenda. (Members Lynda Avanzato and Larry Ceresi elected not to attend the public session after the executive session adjourned.)
Mr. Mudge, joined by fellow-traveler Mel Benson, wanted to disclose a vote taken in executive session on ESP’s latest contract offer. Apparently lost on Mr. Mudge is why the Open Meetings Act allows confidential executive sessions to discuss sensitive issues such as union contract offers. Do Mudge and Benson believe the union should disclose publicly the votes taken by its executive committee?
After the meeting was abruptly adjourned, parent Kelly McPartlin complained to a reporter that she “had a whole, three-minute speech planned” in which she was going to urge both sides “to shift their perspective to the …community’s children”. Maybe Ms. McPartlin can try to present her speech at the next union meeting –if they will let her in.

n According to the Associated Press, “Democratic lawmakers last Friday approved a bill that would create the nation’s first state-run retirement program for private-sector workers. California Senate bill SB1234 establishes the California Secure Choice Retirement Savings Program for nearly seven million low income workers whose private employers don’t offer retirement plans.
According to the bill’s author, Sen. Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles) the program directs employers to withhold three percent of their workers’ pay unless the employee opts out of the savings program. [The plan] would be administered by a seven-member board chaired by the state treasurer.
Republicans said they have too many questions about the program and note that if the underwriter fails to meet investment targets, taxpayers and employers could be held responsible for covering investment losses and administrative overhead. They also expressed concern that the fund could be administered by the California Public Employees’ Retirement System. The state’s largest pension fund posted an annual return of just one percent last year, missing its own long-term annual target of 7.5 percent.
De Leon introduced the bill earlier this year in response to what he called the ‘looming retirement tsunami’ as millions of low-wage workers face financial hardship in their retirement years. He said the program would act as a supplement to Social Security by offering “private-sector workers a portable savings plan with a guaranteed return.”
So, in the “People’s Republic of California”, which is basically insolvent, we have Democrats creating a defined benefit pension plan for millions of workers in the private sector. The workers turn over nearly 10 percent of their pay to the Social Security Administration and CalPERS in addition to a 6.25% match from their employer and they get a pension guaranteed by taxpayers, including themselves.
This bill will result in billions of dollars in unfunded retirement liabilities in a state nearly bankrupted by excessive retirement benefits for its public employees.
California and Massachusetts are regarded as bellwether states for “progressive” reforms (such as homosexual marriage). Standby for something similar to be introduced in the Rhode Island legislature, especially if union-backed candidates are voted into office in November.

Richard August is a North Kingstown resident and a regular contributor to the Standard Times. He served for six years on North Kingstown’s Audit Committee and was its chairman for the last two. His opinions are his own.

Southern Rhode Island Newspapers
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