1. Archive

School workers' union vote nears

Jean Russell, a bus driver for the Citrus County public school system, says she and others want a union to represent drivers and some other non-teaching workers for one main reason.

"We have a voice," Russell said, "and it's about time we be heard."

Russell heads the committee that has worked since early this year to bring the Teamsters union. If the move is successful, the union will represent nearly 400 employees, including bus drivers, aides and mechanics; head custodians, custodians and custodian aides; technicians; facilities specialists; food service workers; maintenance workers and helpers; store clerks; and warehouse workers.

With the election set for Nov. 13 and 14, union supporters are stepping up their campaign for the home stretch.

During a meeting last week, Russell and several other organizing team members discussed with the Citrus Times the reasons they want a union. Those reasons include everything from retirement benefits to salary to assignments.

To this point, the school district has neither organized a meeting with employees nor distributed literature describing the administration's position.

Ed Murphy, who heads collective bargaining for the district, said he could not say whether the administration would issue any such formal message.

Organizers say they have plenty of reasons to need a union _ and plenty of examples of how the administration has been unfair over the years.

"The good-old-boy-ism in Citrus County is very prevalent and they're just continuing that system," bus driver David Mason said. He cited several concerns, including the recent addition of double bus runs and use of favoritism when handling extra assignments.

"It's a very big issue," said Rebecca Black, another bus driver. "On the double runs, we do a second run for half the pay."

Black said bus drivers face unique difficulties. "We work very few hours a day and get little wages, but because of weather and other things, we're basically on call all hours of the day," she said.

While each employee group involved in the union election has some different concerns, the organizing committee said each group has the same general desire: respect and fairness for all.

Murphy said the district already provides that.

"This district tries to work with people fairly and the track record is there," he said. "We've been sensitive to the needs of the individual here, and this (the union effort) is putting someone else in the way of the individual."

He said the district has tried to listen to workers' concerns and work with the leadership of their organizations. The bus drivers have two associations, and the food service staff has one.

"Many of us have come up through the ranks . . . and we know where the concerns and the problems are," Murphy said. "Citrus County does an excellent job working with people to solve their concerns and answer their fears. . . .

"I hope that the employees of the district who are eligible to vote would really take a hard look at this and understand what they're doing."

If the workers vote to organize, they would not be the first union in the school system. Citrus County's public school teachers are represented by the Florida Teaching Profession-National Education Association.

Other non-teaching employees, including teacher aides, secretaries and clerical workers, are excluded from the election.

The polling will take place at sites throughout the county for a set period, one to two hours at most locations. At each site, a representative of the Public Employee Relations Commission will monitor the process. Both the employees and the administration also can have representatives present.

Ballots will be counted at the school district office in Inverness on the afternoon of the 14th.

Teamster organizers say they still are trying to convince employees that the ballot is secret.

"A lot of people are afraid," Black said.

Mason agreed. He said supervisors have told some people not to talk to union organizers and not to attend organizing meetings. But Bob Maldunas, the organizing coordinator for the Teamsters, said there are definite rules about what the administration can do.

"Under federal law, the School Board cannot coerce or spy on employees. It's an employee's right under federal law (to organize). But some people still don't believe it. They're still scared," Maldunas said.

Murphy said employees had no reason to fear voting.

Voting for a union, Murphy said, "is an individual's right."

"They have a choice to do that if they see fit," he said.

And if the union is approved, Murphy said the school district will work with it.

Big changes are on the horizon for some non-teaching employees. Superintendent Pete Kelly is expected to finish new job descriptions and a new pay scale for non-teaching employees before the next school year begins.

Rose Pool, another bus driver who contacted the Times to discuss the union effort, said potential changes in store for non-teaching employees are only one reason she supports organizing.

"The problem we have here is that, when we talk to someone, it goes in one ear and out the other," Pool said. "But nothing ever happens. . . .

"If they consider us to be professionals, then why don't they hear some of the ideas we've had?"

Pool said that she believes employees want to make the system better, and that they have the experience to know what might work and what won't.

"I am concerned about kids and how things are going and what's going on," she said. "We have to be allowed to have input."