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Union push linked to security, fairness

(ran PW edition of PT)

Citrus County's non-teaching school employees are pushing to unionize because they want job security and more fairness in hiring, according to School Board member Sheila Whitelaw.

Those employees, through the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, filed a petition this week with the Florida Public Employee Relations Commission seeking a union election for the district's nearly 550 bus drivers and maintenance, custodial and lunchroom workers.

Whitelaw, who has long acted as the liaison between district employees with concerns and the school administration, said Wednesday that she had mixed feelings about the unionizing effort.

"Knowing what I know, if I were a non-instructional employee, I would vote for the union," Whitelaw said.

"But I am an elected official charged with looking out for what is in the best interests of this district as a whole. And for the district, I don't know if a union is a good thing."

Whitelaw said she saw two effects from the employees' efforts.

"For the employees, I see more job security, a greater sense of them knowing what is expected of them, and fairness in employment practices," she said. "But for the district, I see it as a very sad day because I see it as an indication that we have failed to work well enough with our employees and they felt that they had to go outside for representation."

Those issues are clear in a newsletter being distributed among employees.

"Are you tired of the favoritism? Are you worried about your seniority? How about your pay? Do you know what your pay will be next school year? Vote yes for your future," the newsletter encourages employees.

The district is completing a study of all salaries in the district. Questions about the pay of non-teaching employees helped prompt the study, school officials have said.

The study also is looking at salaries of administrators and teachers. The latter negotiate through their union each year.

Randy Pines, a Teamsters organizer who has been working with the Citrus employees, said that his organization was called in by the employees some time ago and that he had been meeting with them. Though his job is to teach them how to form a union, he said the effort must be theirs.

"The issues, very generally, are dignity and respect, and this is probably the same as issues all over America," he said. "People are seeking dignity and respect in the workplace."

Pines said the employees have a lot of work to do to organize themselves. He said he hoped an election could be scheduled by the end of the school year.

"I feel that the Citrus County school bus drivers and school workers . . . are working hard with other people's kids, and I feel they need respect for the job that they do, and maybe they're not getting that," Pines said.

School system personnel officials could not be reached Wednesday for comment on the union effort, but Superintendent Pete Kelly said Tuesday that the effort caught him by surprise. He said he did not know a serious unionizing effort was going on.

Whitelaw said she told him several times that employees were unionizing, including in private sessions with him and at a board meeting.

"I'm just amazed that Mr. Kelly has been in the dark about this thing. I've tried to shine the flashlight into his eyes, but I guess I blinded him," she said.

Whitelaw listed several recent controversies involving non-teaching employees that she said have led to the strong push for unionizing. Recently she complained about the treatment received by a fired custodian at Inverness Middle School.

Before that, school bus drivers turned out in force to protest route and pay changes, and the loss of a job by one driver even though she was on a continuing contract with the school district. She was reinstated and is still driving a bus for the district.

Whitelaw said employees become even more frustrated when they see different treatment for administrators who make mistakes.

Whitelaw and teachers bargaining for pay this past year cited the $3-million shortfall caused by district administrator error compounded by state mistakes.

"When you talk to employees about the consequences of relatively minor infractions and then you look at larger mistakes made by the district and there is no comparison between the consequences of that infraction, that creates frustration," Whitelaw said.

"We've got a $3-million mistake, and it is four months later and still no one is held accountable. And in this case, the students are the ones paying the price."