Employees Explain Position in Dispute

Public Forum Hears Staff Grievances from Community Services Personnel; Campaign for Union Heats Up

By MANDY LOCKE

Island Counseling Center employees - wading through an unresolved labor dispute at Martha's Vineyard Community Services - received unwavering support in the court of public opinion Monday evening.

The forum, sponsored by ICC petitioners for a union and representatives from Service Employees International Union local 767, Hospital Workers Union, drew well over 40 past and current employees, union representatives and concerned citizens. For more than an hour, citizens asked questions and employees shared grievances - both demanding change within Community Services.

"We're all here because we like the work. We could walk away with our own two feet. But we wanted to change the system. Believe me, I'm the last person who thought I'd be involved in a union," ICC petitioner Rob Doyle told the audience.

"It's so tragic to see therapists develop warm and meaningful relationships with clients and then be forced to say, ‘I cannot afford to stay here,' " ICC petitioner Jane Cleare said.

"The union will give us another place to stand. [The administration] ignored us, humiliated us. It gives us a different way to get into a conversation," ICC petitioner Jane Dreeben said.

Inevitably, petitioners and union officials could not field the majority of questions raised Monday night. An empty chair and a placard bearing the name Ned Robinson-Lynch appeared at the head table. Mr. Robinson-Lynch, Community Services executive director, announced last week that he and board members would not attend the public forum because of National Labor Relations Board constraints on administration during proceedings.

"I can't help but notice there's an empty chair. Why is he taking such an adversarial role against his staff?" Tim Dobel of Oak Bluffs asked, pointing to Mr. Robinson-Lynch's empty place.

"Rather than answering for him, why don't you just submit questions and we can get those to him," Mr. Doyle said.

Despite the absence of Community Services leadership, the questions continued.

"Is there a personnel committee on the board? It seems to be the issue's more than salaries, it's about structure and the system. They need to be apprised of their responsibility, because we give them money. At one time, it was a functioning board. It may still be, but nobody's here to tell me about it," former Community Services board member Vera Shorter said.

"I'm confused about the budget. How is that made?" someone else asked.

"I want to hear why [administration] does not want to pay more. You don't respect your staff if you don't pay a living wage. For an institution that has Community Services in its name, it's not living up to that," Hospice nurse Juleann VanBelle said.

"It's still not clear to me whether board meetings are open or not," a woman in the back said.

"I'm hearing that staff tried to have a conversation. Silence is the most aggressive response. When someone is disengaged, it's more aggressive than any argument," Vineyard Haven resident Cindy Doyle said.

"I don't hear one good, specific reason why [administration] is opposed to the union," Michele Lazerow of Oak Bluffs said.

Five ICC employees began the public forum by outlining the history leading to the current campaign for union status.

"Since then, some policy and procedure issues have been addressed. Morale has not. Wage and salary issues are ongoing," Ms. Dreeben said, explaining that organized efforts by ICC employees began in the fall of 2000 after a program-wide retreat.

Nineteen ICC staff members filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to form a bargaining unit on March 15, citing consistency in client care, an articulated pay scale, due process, living wages and respect from management as reasons for unionizing. Four days of hearings in front of the NLRB followed to determine which Community Services employees could vote on whether or not to have a union. Both sides now agree that professional staff in ICC and Visiting Nurse Service (VNS) can cast a vote during an election to be held in early summer. The NLRB has yet to announce whether clinical supervisors and graduate interns at ICC can vote in the election.

Ms. Dreeben reported that according to a survey within ICC and independent research, ICC employees found that their salaries fell at the lower end of the scale compared to averages for peers at similar health and human service agencies in the state.

"Salaries varied a great deal. Some employees made 60 to 70 per cent of what they'd make off-Island. Others made 50 per cent. We continue to look at job advertisements [for comparison]. It's very demoralizing," Ms. Dreeben said.

In the past year, petitioners said they presented wage grievances to administration. Supervisors within ICC then met individually with each employee to discuss compensation. In January, all employees received a two and a half per cent raise, and a small number of entry-level employees received a 13 per cent pay increase.

"We've been told there was a financial crisis in the state," ICC petitioner Amy Lilavois said, repeating the reason management gave for not boosting salaries more.

"Having studied the annual report, do we see an opportunity to be paid more?" an audience member asked.

Ms. Dreeben explained that according to records filed with the state attorney general, Community Services funneled some $250,000 to $500,000 per year for the last five years into investments.

"It makes good fiscal sense, except that we've been told they can't afford to pay us more," Ms. Dreeben said. She added that the salaries of the top five managers at Community Services fell on the higher end of the salary scale when compared to similar positions at other institutions in the state.

Several former counselors from ICC said these wage inequities and miscommunication between staff and management have existed at the agency for quite some time.

"It was the same situation. We got together and had a meeting. We talked about a union then. Years later, the situation is still the same. I'm proud of you. I left because it was a situation that was not workable. Six others left at that time as well," said Diane McKeller, former substance abuse counselor at ICC from 1985 to 1995.

"For 14 years, I've been told we couldn't afford [raises]. The two per cent raise doesn't keep up with cost of living," ICC petitioner Bruce Balter said.

"I was an intern at ICC for two years. I went in to ask about pay after I got my masters. They said I'd be making less than $10 an hour and that I'd have to work for three months before receiving insurance. As an intern, I had great supervisors. I had worked well above and beyond hours listed on the pay sheet. It goes beyond salary. It's about treatment. At the Edgartown Council on Aging, I have unlimited access to my board. If the [Community Services] board doesn't know about the situation, then they need to learn it and learn it fast," said former ICC graduate intern Susan Desmaris.

Another audience member asked if joining a union would address their concerns.

Longtime hospital employee Bobbie Gibson, who has been a member of the Hospital Workers Union, local 767 for 27 years, said the union addressed all of their grievances with hospital management.

"It's the best thing you can imagine. Tell them you want holidays. Tell them you want pay measures. You'll be much better off for it," Ms. Gibson said.

Ms. Lilavois explained that ICC petitioners and union representatives offered early resolution to the labor dispute by holding a "card check" vote within ICC and VNS. The vote, conducted by a neutral party, would allow clinical supervisors and interns to vote.

Ms. Lilavois read the audience Mr. Robinson-Lynch's response to their proposition.

"I have received a letter dated April 23, 2002, obviously drafted by the union, requesting that MVCS go forward with an alternative method that would allow the union to get into our agency quickly and quietly, without going through the process established by the NLRB. Neither I, nor the board of directors will allow that to happen. Here's why: The process established by the NLRB allows each individual eligible voter to make their decision in private and by secret ballot. This union suggests that we should not allow employees the opportunity to vote by secret ballot. That simply is unfair, undemocratic and against all that we stand for," Mr. Robinson-Lynch said in an internal memo on April 29, 2002.

VNS employee Cynthia Farrington said she is concerned that only certain VNS employees may vote. "Home health aides are not included. I'd be bitter if I were them," Ms. Farrington said.

Ms. Cleare said other unions, particularly nonprofessional unions, could enter Community Services later. "We're entirely supportive of them. We're certainly not interested in excluding. If this is successful, there's no way it won't spread. It will affect everyone at Community Services," Ms. Cleare said.