A matter of ‘respect’
Classified employees say Chico’s school district treats them ‘like second-class citizens’
Classified employees in the Chico Unified School District say they are looking for “respect” and “justice.”
What upsets them is that, when it comes to contract grievances with their employer, the Chico Unified School District, the district is the ultimate decider of who’s right. To the employees, that’s clearly a conflict of interest—a case of “the fox guarding the henhouse,” they charge.
If you’ve been reading the letters section of this or the daily newspaper lately, you’ve probably noticed that the employees—comprising all those other than teachers and administrators—have been taking their case to the court of public opinion.
They’re frustrated. For two years their union, the California School Employees Association’s Chico Chapter No. 110, has tried negotiating with the district to include binding arbitration in their labor contract. Binding arbitration would allow a neutral party to decide on a grievance if the district and the union couldn’t come to a settlement on their own.
Under the current grievance procedure, the school board has the final decision on whether the district violated the contract and what remedy should be applied, if any.
“[District staff] have the right to say, ‘No, we didn’t violate your contract,’ and that’s the last say,” said Patricia Brasier, a member of the CSEA Chico executive board.
“If we had binding arbitration, it would be a neutral person—it’s not like we are asking for money. We are asking to be respected.”
Jack Metcalf, CSEA labor-relations representative, says the district’s lack of interest in the union’s request is insulting, especially given that the district’s teachers have binding arbitration in their contracts.
The district is “treating one group of employees as second-class citizens,” he charged. “All we want is justice. If someone believes the contract has been violated, then we should have a hearing.”
When it was apparent the issue could not be resolved in normal negotiations, and a mediator could not help resolve the conflict, the dispute over binding arbitration was submitted to a three-member fact-finding panel in June. According to the CSEA Web site, the panel’s chairperson issued a recommendation in September that binding arbitration “is the only appropriate settlement of this issue.”
The panel’s recommendations are not binding on the parties, however, and the district has not accepted them.
CSEA members rallied and spoke at a school board meeting Oct. 15, presenting a petition signed by 90 percent of the district’s classified employees. A solution was still not reached after a bargaining session on Oct. 29.
Bob Feaster, CUSD’s assistant superintendent for human resources, says the potential costs associated with the binding arbitration requirement, along with a reluctance to allow a third party “who doesn’t know the district” to be responsible for a binding decision, are two main reasons for the district’s reluctance to adopt binding arbitration.
Here’s a case in point. CSEA has filed a grievance this year concerning the district’s reduction of the amount it was contributing to full-time employees’ health insurance benefits. Metcalf said the contract requires the district to pay the “entire cost” of the employees’ “silver plan.” This year, however, that cost went up by $68 a month.
“When the silver plan went up, they refused to pay,” Metcalf said.
Feaster said the agreement on the contribution of benefits was for only a three-year term.
“This is a very emotional topic,” Feaster said. “I feel for these folks. These are hard economic times … but it would have been foolish for the district to say they would pay that cost forever.”
CSEA representatives say they don’t often have grievances with the district, but when one comes up they often have nowhere to turn. They can file an “unfair practice” allegation with the state Public Employment Relations Board, but many violations don’t fit the guidelines.
“If you have a situation that is not an ‘unfair practice,’ without binding arbitration you don’t have a way to solve the conflict,” he said. “That’s a problem for us.”
Brasier, who has worked as a bus aide in the district for eight years, says she is upset that the district doesn’t seem to be considering binding arbitration, or even discussing the issue.
She says the cost for the grievance process would be either a 50-50 split or “generally whoever loses pays.”
In a letter she sent to the CN&R, she states, “CUSD claims that [binding arbitration] will cost them money. I am sorry, it would only cost them money if they violate our contract.”
Classified employees play a crucial role in the education process, she said, and teachers could not do their jobs without these employees operating buses, providing meals, cleaning bathrooms or keeping records updated.