After three arduous months of bargaining Local 221’s negotiating committee reached a new three-year contract with the Champaign Valley Office of Economic Opportunity (CVOEO) in early February, three months after the expiration of the old contract.
With strong backing from the membership, the union negotiated a historic immediate wage increase of $2 to $3 an hour for Head Start workers. In the second and third years of the agreement, these workers will receive raises of at least 1.5 percent. The other group of workers represented by Local 221, who work in community action officers, will receive wage increases of 50 cents each year.
In preparation for negotiations, the local conducted an internal organizing campaign. Members identified key issues that needed to be addressed and built unity among on those issues among the members, who are spread across three Vermont counties. Members also worked to put together a strong negotiating committee.
The local also fought for and won the creation of a joint safety committee which will give members a say in developing policies and procedures to better ensure workplace health and safety. This had been a goal of the union in the previous negotiations, but was not achieved until now. “For this contract we knew we needed to make sure safety was at the top of list,” said one member. “We work in a field where we need to be safe and we need management to know that our safety is a priority.” The new contract requires management to establish the joint safety committee within 90 days.
After much back and forth with management, the union’s negotiators succeeded in maintaining the same level of health insurance benefits with no changes.
The local also made changes to contract language on the grievance procedure and progressive discipline were also matters that were fought for and won to clarify workers’ rights and remove ambiguities that might be abused by management. A very important change spells out that management cannot use the evaluation process against a worker who is seeking an upgrade or transfer to another position, to discipline the employee or impose probation. “Our members want and deserve the opportunity to advance in other positions without the fear that their evaluation for that new position could lead to them being fired. We couldn’t stand for that,” said Local President Abbie Curtis. Also, language on documented verbal warnings was added to the contract. In additionally, the parties agreed that all gendered pronouns in the contract would be replaced with gender-neutral language
The 403(b) retirement savings plan was previously covered in a side letter, but not in the body of the contract. The union succeeded in adding the language on this benefit to the contract itself. The employer contributes 25 cents per hour to each member’s retirement account.
The local union leadership worked hard to make sure members at all CVOEO locations in the three counties were kept informed of the issues being discussed in negotiations and what management was saying at the bargaining table. “This process made me realize that the union has my best interest as a priority,” said Local Vice President Noelle Cleveland. “But that’s not necessarily true of management. When it came time to put words into action the agency fought against us on important issues like safety and working conditions, but the union was there to make and represent the needs of our members.”
On February 2, the final night of bargaining the union negotiating committee kept management at the table until 1:45 a.m so that an agreement could be finalized and presented to union members later that day.
The Local 221 negotiating committee consisted of Noelle Cleveland, Marianne Manning and Abbie Curtis, assisted by UE Field Organizer Chad McGinnis.