By LISA CAPOBIANCO
In response to an order of the state Board of Labor Relations last month regarding school cafeteria workers, the Board of Education recently voted to appeal the order.
Last Wednesday, the school board voted 5 to 2 to appealthe order to comply with a tentative agreement made with school cafeteria workers and voted to request for a stay of order so the district can move forward with privatizing cafeteria work.
The labor board order was issued June 16.
This past May, all Republican school board members voted to approve a contract to hire Long-Island-based Whitsons Culinary Group to handle the cafeteria program in order to eliminate its deficit. This year, the cafeteria budget is more than $200,000 in debt.
The school board signed a contract with Whitson’s, which was scheduled go into effect July 1.
Last September, Local 2267, Council 4, the union that represents the cafeteria workers in the district, filed a complaint with the Connecticut State Board of Labor Relations, stating the school board “violated the Municipal Employee Relations Act when it failed to ratify a certain tentative bargaining agreement.” In response, the school board filed a petition for declaratory ruling with the labor board requesting for determination of “whether the proposed transfer of certain bargaining unit work was a mandatory subject of bargaining and subject to interest arbitration under the Act,” according to the order issued by the labor board. After those two preliminary steps, the matter came before the labor board during a hearing that took place in January when all parties appeared and were represented. In conclusion, the labor board found that the Board of Education “failed to honor its statutory obligation to bargain in good faith.”
During last Wednesday’s meeting, Democratic school board member Karen Hintz did not vote in favor of the appeal, emphasizing there is a middle ground on the issue.
“At this point, these cafeteria employees have lived in limbo for months and months and months,” said Hintz, adding asking for a stay is counterproductive. “If we lose our appeal, we’ll have a liability for $220,000 in addition to the six figure legal bills we accrued to this point.”
Karen Vibert, also a Democrat, agreed.
“People may feel confident that the decision will come back in favor of the board—I work in the legal field—you can’t take anything for granted,” Vibert told the school board. “I think it would be fool-hearted on our part to just jump right in and ask for a stay when we don’t know what’s going to happen.”
During the meeting, school board Vice Chairman Gerard Dolan made a motion for the Board of Education to file an appeal of the State Labor Board to New Britain Superior Court. Dolan, who has supported outsourcing the cafeteria program from the beginning, said the stay is crucial in order to ensure that food services are in place in time for the start of the new school year.
Founded in 1979, Whitsons is a family-owned company that offers dining services to consumers and public and private organizations nationwide. Its services include school nutrition, residential and healthcare dining, prepared meals, corporate dining, vending services and emergency dining. During a meeting held last month, several representatives of Whitsons provided the school board an overview of the kinds of food services offered to Bristol students this fall, including a number of different vendors that would offer burgers, sandwiches, pizza and Mexican food, as well as grab-and-go stations.
“Without a stay, I don’t think we can make the decision to go ahead immediately, and we’re in limbo for the next year—that’s not fair to the cafeteria workers if they have to lose the appeal, then that’s going to uproot them,” said Dolan during the meeting. “We also need time to make a decision for Whitsons to make preparation for the coming year—it’s unfair… not to give them that time.”
“Without a stay, we’re showing ambivalence,” said Dolan.
“It’s the right thing to continue moving in that same direction,” added school board member Jill Fitzgerald, who also has supported outsourcing the cafeteria work.
Last Tuesday, City Councilor Calvin Brown continued to speak out against the privatization of cafeteria workers. During a meeting, Brown requested his fellow city councilors urge the Board of Education not to challenge cafeteria workers with an appeal but rather to work with the union.
During the meeting, Brown requested a resolution for the council to vote on, which asked the school board not to “pursue this any further, to honor the labor board’s ruling, and to work with the cafeteria workers under the previously agreed on tentative agreement.” Brown said the council should take a stand on the issue, and to encourage the school board not to “take the legal battle any further.”
“While they continue to fight this battle, 53 women are in the balance—their lives are being toyed with, their livelihood is being toyed with it,” said Brown. “Many of these women are Bristol residents, and that is what makes it more than a Board of Education issue—this is a quality of life issue.”
In response to Brown’s proposed resolution, the four Republicans decided to avoid a direct vote and instead made a motion to “postpone indefinitely any action on Brown’s resolution.”
City Councilor Eric Carlson said the school board did the right thing by searching for the best way to help cut costs to taxpayers by privatizing even though it would put some employees out of work.
“I think they did their duty in looking out for the taxpayers of the city,” said Carlson during the meeting. “I believe this is a Board of Education issue.”
“This is really a Board of Education matter and not ours,” added Councilor Henri Martin. “Let them settle this—this is not our fight.”
Democratic Councilor Mary Fortier said she would have supported Brown’s resolution. Fortier said the matter at hand is a “fiscal issue,” which elected officials should take responsibility for.
“I think we are elected to take responsibility for fiscal issues.” “I support the cafeteria workers, and I support their right to maintain a middle class existence.” “The health insurance benefits that those employees [have] allow them to maintain a middle class lifestyle.”
Councilor Ellen Zoppo-Sassu also said she would have supported Brown’s resolution.
“I have concerns that if it’s pursued that we would…be going on a road where money is being used for purposes that I think would have been better served in our classrooms,” said Zoppo.
Mayor Ken Cockayne spoke publicly in response to Brown’s resolution, calling the overall situation a “Board of Ed issue.” Cockayne agreed with Martin’s motion to postpone Brown’s resolution indefinitely.
“The Mayor’s Office, and the City Council have zero to do with Board of Ed contracts,” said Cockayne. “It’s not our say.”
By LISA CAPOBIANCO