Federal Mediator for Services Talks

By MANDY LOCKE

Acknowledging difficulties in wage talks, Martha's Vineyard Community Services management and union officials have agreed to invite a federal mediator to the negotiation table.

"After 20 sessions, we're still very far apart. To be in this place after so long, we realized we had a serious problem. Something had to be done," said Richard Perras, MVCS labor attorney, who requested the third-party facilitator after a day-long contract negotiation session last week.

The move comes nine months after the health and human services agency's leaders began negotiating a contract with union officials representing 35 employees from Island Counseling Center and Visiting Nurse Services. ICC employees pushed for a collective bargaining unit with Service Employees International Union, Hospital Workers local 767 last spring - igniting a publicly divisive campaign period spanning three months.

In April, employees presented a wage package that called for an average 30 per cent increase to union staff. Management offered a two and a half percent cost of living adjustment - standardly offered to all agency employees each January - along with a promise to reopen negotiations in the fall of 2003 to specifically discuss compensation. Both sides flatly rejected the other's offer.

Last week, union officials tempered their wage demands - calling for an average 15 per cent salary increases. The raises would accompany the standard two and a half percent cost of living adjustment.

"Fifteen per cent is nowhere near what we really want, but someone had to budge. They didn't seem like they were going to. It was such a dramatic decrease that we just assumed [management] would consider it," said Amy Lilavois, an ICC employee.

But agency officials - finding the adjusted wage proposal no more palatable than the original demands - moved to bring in federal mediation.

Ned Robinson-Lynch, MVCS executive director, directs all questions about ongoing labor negotiations to attorney Perras. But in an internal staff memorandum and press release issued Friday, he was quoted as saying, "The union apparently feels that a reduction of their earlier extraordinary demand for more than a 30 per cent increase makes a 15 per cent demand reasonable. We disagree. There is no comparable social service agency in the state of Massachusetts with increases even close to what the union is demanding at MVCS."

The union's new proposal also calls for establishment of a labor-management committee to oversee distribution of donations specifically earmarked for staff compensation. The committee would handle gifts like the one offered by singer/songwriter Carly Simon, who announced last month that she would direct 30 per cent of her donated dream's proceeds from this years Possible Dreams auction to boost the wages of agency staff.

"It's clear that the community has some interest in supporting this. But we needed to make sure that it wasn't done silently. We need to make sure that promised allocations actually got made," said Jerry Fishbein, director of local 767.

Mr. Robinson-Lynch and members of the board of directors have not yet commented on Ms. Simon's stipulation, or said whether such criteria can be followed.

Participation by a Federal Management and Conciliation Services facilitator is a voluntary agreement by management and union officials. Recommendations offered by this neutral third party mediator are not binding. There is no timetable for resolution once the mediator gets involved.

"Federal mediation isn't perfect, but we need some help moving this along. It's a common-sense route for people who want to reach agreement," Mr. Perras said.

But union officials call the move to bring a third party to their table nothing more than a tactic to stall.

"It's a bit premature [to call for federal mediation], but we recognize it's another effort to slow the process," said Jerry Fishbein, director of local 767.

"The kind of unwillingness of the agency to address core issues suggests that anything they could do to circumvent the process is expected. It's couched in a way to make them sound like they are willing to address issues," he added.

But management's labor counsel sees federal mediation as the only way to bridge the gap between the union's salary demands and management's offer.

"The union's position on wages is ridiculous. If we were close to resolution, we wouldn't be calling for federal mediation," Mr. Perras said.

Both sides are scheduled to meet again July 22. Whether the mediator will joining that session is unclear.

The escalating dispute has been spilling into the public arena over the last several months as Island Counseling Center employees have drafted letters to the editor. It is now just about one month until the 25th anniversary of the Possible Dreams auction - a star-studded event which, in recent years, has annually collected more than $300,000 for the community services operating budget.