New Fundraiser Just for Employee Pay?

It's the Latest Idea from Management in Community Services Dispute; Union Leaders Are Skeptical

By MANDY LOCKE

Management waved an olive branch across the negotiation table at Martha's Vineyard Community Services Friday - offering to add a new fundraiser to the agency's social calendar for the purposes of boosting the earnings of agency staff.

Yesterday, the union informally rejected what they termed as "a bake sale."

Management's offer to host a separate fundraiser comes less than three weeks before the Possible Dreams auction - a high-rolling summer fundraiser that has become a pawn in unresolved contract negotiations between agency officials and 35 unionized employees.

"Compensation [for staff] could always be improved. Non-profits such as ours that are dependent on state funds and private fundraising struggle to have a well-balanced budget and pay our people well," said community services board president Ursula Ferro in a telephone conversation yesterday morning.

The move comes less than a week after management rejected singer/songwriter Carly Simon's proposal that the nonprofit accept a portion of her donation for Possible Dreams as specifically earmarked for staff wage increases, not wanting to change the auction's mission of covering unfunded care in midstream.

Employees of Island Counseling Center, one of two programs represented by Service Employees Union International, Hospital Workers Union local 767, have indicated they will use the auction to levy wage grievances, promising to "raise the volume," said ICC counselor Rob Doyle last week.

Richard Perras, the agency's labor attorney, said the proposal for a new fundraiser could head off such conflict. "Clearly, we would expect that if they accept this proposal, they would not [raise grievances at the auction]. It's implicit. We would have an agreement in place," he said.

The union has until July 29 to accept the offer. The union must also agree to a two-year contract complete with management's original wage package of a 2.5 per cent cost of living increase, along with a commitment to reopen wage talks in the fall of 2004.

The union's idea of fair compensation differs by a margin of over $100,000 - calling for 15 per cent increases.

While management's fundraising offer will formally be discussed during a negotiation session today, the union officials and employees said yesterday they were unimpressed.

"If this is supposed to be in response to a comprehensive wage proposal, it seems pretty inadequate. At first glance, it does not appear to be a serious proposal," said Jerry Fishbein, director of local 767.

In late June, the union revised their wage proposal, scaling back salary increase demands from 30 percent, along with calling for the agency to "publicly announce that donors and participants in the 2003 Possible Dreams Auction may designate some or all of their donation toward increasing wages for all agency employees." The proposal includes the establishment of a joint union and management committee to review and distribute earmarked donations.

In its new proposal, management said it would evenly distribute the proceeds of any fundraising to all of the agency's 143 employees - not simply the 35 ICC and Visiting Nurse Service employees in the union's bargaining unit.

Officials acknowledge this one-time event - the specifics of which were not described in the offer - would not fully address staff salary grievances.

"We're not suggesting that this fundraiser be the only vehicle to address salaries. But we need to settle a labor dispute and get the stability of a contract. This has to be done incrementally," said Mr. Perras.

But employees don't understand why they can't get a piece of the Possible Dreams pie - a tried and true mechanism for raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars to complete the agency's $5 million operating budget.

"We have a fundraiser that's happening in three weeks. Why not take a chunk of that, then have a later fundraiser to make up what we don't get? Why do we, the staff, have to count on something that's an unknown?" asked ICC employee Amy Lilavois, noting she's relieved that management acknowledges that additional staff compensation is needed.

Brewing labor tensions have seeped into the public arena increasingly since April.

The union interprets management's latest move as an attempt to quiet employee unrest less than a month before an auction that community services' officials say they count on to set the course for what services the agency may offer in the coming year.

"It's clear they made this counterproposal for [the newspaper] instead of us. They're wanting to gain some credentials in the public domain. It's not a commitment to help staff. It's a commitment to do a bake sale," said Mr. Fishbein.

Ms. Ferro said she hopes that any staff involvement in the auction won't interrupt the course of the Possible Dreams Auction.

"I certainly hope it won't. But I don't know how one predicts these things. I think the good will of the community is amazing. I think they realize how important the fundraiser is to the agency," Ms. Ferro said.