August 11, 2017

Rockford school employees gain contracts

After a long struggle for fairness that climaxed in a three-day strike, nearly 1,000 AFSCME members at Rockford Public Schools successfully blocked the district’s privatization attempts, improved their wages and protected their health insurance.

Taking a page from Bruce Rauner’s playbook, the school board had refused to negotiate for months on end and eventually imposed its “last, best and final offer” in January, arguing that negotiations were at impasse.

AFSCME filed an Unfair Labor Practice charge challenging the impasse claim as the bargaining teams of AFSCME locals 692, 1275 and 3210 had made clear their willingness to negotiate.

Finally the paraprofessionals, bus drivers and nutrition services workers were forced to go on a three-day strike in March. They took their case to the public, urging the board to get back to the bargaining table.

During the strike, elected officials, parents and community leaders called on the board to negotiate with the staff who help teach, transport, care for and feed the city’s students—and who are also parents of RPS students.

Tikisha Ellis, president of local 3210, said her local was encouraged by the support and resources they got from fellow AFSCME members, other unions and the community during a tough and emotional fight. Looking to the future, she wants to make a plan for building stronger and more broad-based community support.

Despite Superintendent Ehren Jarrett’s assurances to parents during the strike that the district would bargain in good faith, the district refused to negotiate with employees when they returned to work. Instead, the board tried to quickly privatize bus operations and food services.

When the board voted to contract with a third party vendor, bus drivers had to make a decision: save their union and live to fight another day or give in and allow the district to privatize bus services.

A strong majority voted to accept the contract, which included both raises and increased health insurance costs. The school board ratified the deal on June 1.

That left two of the three locals—paraprofessionals and nutrition services workers—without an agreement. In July, both locals finalized negotiations and overwhelmingly ratified their new union contracts; on August 8 the school board did the same.

“Getting this three-year contract with annual raises was hard work,” Ellis said. “There were a lot of challenges but you have to stay positive and focused, no matter what’s thrown at you. You have to be persistent, press forward, know your worth and stand your ground.”

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