An Agreement in Agency Talks

Community Services and Union Reach Tentative First Accord; Joint Committee to Study Salary Parity Issues

By MANDY LOCKE

After more than 18 months of bitter division, Martha's Vineyard Community Services leaders, nurses and mental health counselors shook hands Monday evening moments after settling their first union contract.

"I give both sides credit for hanging in there. [During the last few months], we became a ‘we' instead of an ‘us and them,'" said Ned Robinson-Lynch, executive director of community services.

For some employees, resolution was bittersweet - a goal gained after more than 30 bargaining sessions, after the departure of more than ten mental health counselors and after a public, and often personal, battle with management.

"People are kind of like, yep, it's done. It's unfortunate that it took so long, and we lost so many people. I'm really cynical about the whole thing," said Amy Lilavois, an Island Counseling Center (ICC) employee and one of the counselors who pushed for unionization nearly two years ago.

"I'm glad it's signed, but I'm not happy with everything in it. There's room for growth," she added.

The contract, with a ratification vote set March 1, calls for a three per cent annual raise for employees of ICC and Visiting Nurse Services (VNS), another group of employees covered under the agreement. These employees, along with every other employee of Community Services, have already received this raise.

The two-year contract also calls for a possible wage reexamination this fall. A parity committee, including members of the board, management and both ICC and VNS, will be formed to look at Community Services wages compared to peer agencies in the region.

"The main thing that came out of the contract is a roadway to reach parity. It spells out a way to get a fair wage and helps us figure out what we can live with," said Rob Doyle, an ICC employee and a member of the union's negotiation team.

Based on the parity report, if both sides cannot agree on adjustments, an independent fact finder will make recommendations. If management and the union still cannot agree by May 1, the groups head back to the formal negotiation table this fall.

"May 1 is a big day here. If nothing happens, we'll be back to square one," said Ms. Lilavois.

A salary dispute - a $200,000 gap between what management offered and what staff demanded - stalled contract negotiations for much of last year. In October, mental health counselors threatened to strike if management did not budge. In a last ditch effort to avoid a walkout, agency leaders and staff stepped behind closed doors for informal talks.

Management credits these "off-the-record" talks for setting the stage for contract agreement.

"It was helpful to the process to talk directly without the union and the lawyers. It provided a sense of common ground and common interest," said Mr. Robinson-Lynch.

During these informal talks, board members spoke directly with employee representatives for the first time in more than a year. Employees had been calling for their intervention for months.

"We learned a great deal through the process. It was a good listening experience," said Terry Burke, who became president of the board in October. Four board members sat in on these informal discussions, Ms. Burke said.

"We really became people to each other, rather than opposites. It paved the way for everyone to go back to regular negotiations," Ms. Burke added.

Last month, union and management had reached an agreement on all but one contract item - an issue which became a sticking point for some Visiting Nurse Service employees. The union pushed for a closed shop, a clause which would have forced every ICC and VNS employee to join the union. Management wanted everyone to have a choice.

Last week, eight nurses took a stand - sending a letter to management and fellow bargaining unit members, saying they would quit their jobs if forced to be dues-paying members of the union.

The union budged. The final agreement calls for new hires to join the union, while current employees have a choice. The contract applies to staff of ICC and VNS regardless of their union status.

"The nurses aren't happy. They never wanted to be part of this to begin with," said Ms. Lilavois.

ICC employees invited a union into the agency nearly two years ago - complaining of poor wages and bad communication with administration. Shortly after these employees filed a petition to the National Labor Relations Board for union representation, many VNS employees were added to the voting bloc.

The divides were clear from the beginning. During the organizing vote, 22 employees voted in favor, while nine opposed the union. Three ballots were challenged. Shortly after the vote, nurses publicly took credit for the nine oppositions.

A lot has changed within Island Counseling Center since the union vote in June of 2002.

Ms. Lilavois counted at least ten mental health counselors, of the original 27, who left the agency since the union battle began. Their departures, she said, were partially, if not fully, due to frustrations with the work environment. Jane Dreeben, a substance abuse counselor and an outspoken and involved union organizer, was among those mental health counselors to leave.

ICC administrator Stephen Barnes took another job on the mainland late last year, and even the agency's labor attorney was not there for Monday's handshake. Richard Perras, managing partner of Edwards and Angell, is in the process of retiring from the Boston law firm, Mr. Robinson-Lynch said. Mr. Perras, a seasonal resident of the Vineyard, had been offering legal services to the agency pro bono for 11 years.

Healing will take time and vigilance, both leaders and employees said this week.

"[Healing] will happen for two reasons. Now that negotiations are over, we can all go back to the work of Community Services. It was a terrible distraction, and it took a tremendous amount of energy out of everybody. The contract is going to provide guidelines and procedures for a great many areas that we'll all be working toward," said Ms. Burke.

Mr. Doyle agreed that having a contract will allow the agency to once again fully invest in its counseling work.

"We didn't ignore clients. But have we been innovative? No," Mr. Doyle said.

Mr. Doyle and Ms. Lilavois said that the agency's ability to move beyond this tumultuous time largely depends on the board of directors.

"The board's got to stay closely involved, and the community's got to keep a close watch," said Ms. Lilavois.