Jail Employees Vote Union Membership After Long Dispute

By MANDY LOCKE

The lowest ranking jail employees offered Massachusetts Correctional Officers Federated Union (MCOFU) a seat at the county negotiating table Tuesday afternoon, as seven deputy sheriffs cast votes inviting the union into the facility.

"Everyone is relieved, but we're anxious to know where we go from here," said deputy sheriff Phill Fuentes.

The vote comes six months after officers petitioned for union status, citing inconsistent leadership and frequent broaches of policy within the county jail. Relations with management, many deputy sheriffs said, had been strained for some time and reached a boiling point in May following the repeated escape of an inmate.

"It's been such a struggle to get to this point, now we have to sit down and see where we go from here," said deputy sheriff Sean Kelleher.

Sheriff Michael McCormack said he, too, is anxious to begin negotiations with the union.

"I've eager to begin, eager to identify issues out there and begin addressing those," Mr. McCormack said. "I do regret that the process will now be taken out of local hands," he added, noting that the final draft of a contract must be approved by the state Human Resources Division as well as the Massachusetts Executive Office for Administration and Finance.

Deputy sheriffs contemplated union status over the holidays - receiving ballots in the mail days before Christmas and returning them earlier this week. Seven affirmative votes out of a block of 13 eligible employees does not seem like a resounding endorsement of MCOFU. However, three employees, sources say, fell away from the block since the fall. One transferred to another job, another is on an extended leave and the third is off-Island attending a training program.

All seven of the returned ballots backed the union.

"We're looking forward to quickly negotiating a contract so that the officers can get on with living their lives," said MCOFU field representative Paul Reynolds.

Top priorities for employees, Mr. Reynolds said, involve reinstating the cost of living adjustment withheld by former county manager Carol Borer. Mrs. Borer said three weeks ago that the four per cent adjustment had been withheld because the employees sought union status and were expected to negotiate a separate contract with the county.

Mr. Reynolds will also push jail administrators to abandon the newly adopted policy of assigning shifts to employees rather than allowing them to select a schedule.

Mr. Reynolds said negotiations could begin within the month.