Head Start workers to vote on union

 

By Mike Kroll

 

Schools out for the summer and that means that most of the teachers, aides, bus drivers, playground and bus monitors employed by Head Start are on summer vacation as well. Next Wednesday (June 15th) is payday for employees of West Central Community Services and it is also the day the National Labor Relations Board will supervise an election to determine if these employees will be represented by Service Employees International Union. According to Al Pieper, vice president of SEIU Local 73, there are 56 WCCS employees eligible to cast ballots between the Monmouth and Galesburg offices. To bring about this election an estimated 43-45 WCCS employees completed and signed cards indicating an interest in organizing a union Pieper said.

The SEIU already represents Head Start employees in Rock Island, Joliet, Kankakee and elsewhere across the state. According to the union's 2004 annual report more than 300 Illinois Head Start employees are currently represented by the union. Here in Galesburg and Monmouth the employees organizing the union are confident they have the necessary votes despite efforts by WCCS executive director Diann Gravino to dissuade her employees from unionizing. According to employees Gravino has gone beyond merely advocating against the unionization effort and has retaliated against employees she believed were the “ring leaders.” Employees accuse Gravino of harassing them through unwarranted discipline and constant tinkering with their paychecks.

After we printing the first story (April 14, 2005) about unionization efforts at WCCS I made repeated attempts to interview Gravino but despite her assurances that she not only wanted to “set the record straight” and demonstrate that it was merely a small group of malcontents behind the effort Gravino never returned my calls. Head Start employees acknowledge that not all support the union effort but many more than Gravino believes will cast a secret ballot in favor of the union. “A lot of people are scared of Diann [Gravino] and what she might do to them if they are openly pro-union,” said one employee. “They have seen firsthand how those employees identified with the unionization effort have been unfairly reprimanded and disciplined.”

The employees offer numerous examples of Gravino's alleged harassment, many of which would be downright humorous in a television sitcom but are deadly serious when one's livelihood is on the line in the present area economy. A number of longtime Head Start employees have already resigned from the organization citing work place harassment from Gravino. Since we ran the first article on on the unionization effort numerous past Head Start employees have written to the Zephyr with employee horror stories of their own but even those who no longer work there are afraid to make such charges on the record.

On May 12th Gravino sent a letter to all Head Start employees about the upcoming election. “Your decision will affect you and your family's future. We are as concerned as you are about making the right decision. WCCS is opposed to a union at our agency. We are opposed because we know our employees are quite capable of representing themselves in dealing directly with management to achieve their goals and resolve issues that may arise from time to time. WCCS believes that the work conditions, wages and benefits it offers to its employees are very competitive with those offered by other employers in this area. ...Our experience has shown that when employees deal openly and directly with supervisors, the work environment can be excellent, communication can be clear and attitudes can be positive. ...It is unfortunate that unions very often make fancy promises to employees during an attempt to unionize them. Promises are cheap when you don't have to deliver. We all know that unions sometimes strike to force a company to do something that it wouldn't agree to do voluntarily. You all know the hardships that can occur during a strike. ...What you may not know is that a company can lawfully, permanently replace employees who engage in an economic strike. ...we know that a loyal group of employees is necessary to our success and to the success of the children and families we serve. We have a reputation as being one of the best places in the area to work. We have worked hard to develop this reputation.”

 One employee told the story of a parent who called the Galesburg Head Start office on a Thursday to ask that her child not be put on the bus home that afternoon because another family member would pick him up. The receptionist passed this instruction on orally to the child's classroom teacher who later forgot and put the child on the bus. When the family member arrived and the child was gone he contacted the mother who in turn made an angry phone call back to the Head Start office. Another employee who works as a family advocate took this call and confirmed to the mother that her child had been sent on the bus but was safely in the hands of Head Start employees. At the instruction of her supervisor this employee explained how the teacher forgot and promised to look into the matter further. The following Monday morning the mother again calls the Head Start office mad that she hadn't heard back from Head Start regarding the matter. The family advocate says she hadn't yet been able to gather all the facts of the matter by the time the mother called. On Thursday Gravino allegedly called this family advocate into her office to discuss the incident with the supervisor present and proceeded to yell and berate the family advocate because this mother had withdrawn her child from Head Start. “Neither the teacher who caused the incident nor my supervisor who directed all my actions on the matter were held accountable. Diann came right out and asked me, 'How does it feel to be falsely accused of something?' I can only imagine that I was singled out in this incident because I have been openly pro-union.”

It would be easy to dismiss some of the employee allegations under the circumstances were it not for an amazing consistency from story to story. But the real confirmation came from WCCS's own human resource and transportation manager Mike Sage. Sage is the former Monmouth police chief and began working for Gravino in August, 2000. At the end of May Sage resigned stating: “I have found that my ethical values are sometimes in conflict with yours. In those situations you have made the decisions and I have reluctantly carried them out. Recent events have made it impossible for me to ignore these values and I can no longer tolerate the hostile work environment you have created.”

I asked Sage to elaborate on his resignation letter. “Situations arose in which I was asked to take actions that I would interpret as retaliatory against union supporters. Based on my experience the WCCS personnel policies were purposefully ambiguous to suit Diann's management style. On many occasions I witnessed her applying these policies capriciously and wanting to use me as her instrument so as to distance herself from the actions. There is no disputing that Head Start is a hostile work environment. While I was not personally involved in payroll I would say that inconsistency in payroll methods and reporting were a constant occurrence at Head Start.”

As an illustration of this payroll manipulation one employee showed me her pay stubs from August 2004 through the recent conclusion of the school year. Every paycheck in 2004 showed an identical net pay amount but beginning in 2005 no two of her checks were the same. They fluctuated from check to check even though this employee says neither her duties or work hours changed and Sage confirmed this. After receiving complaints about WCCS's payroll practices the Illinois Department of Labor did begin an investigation in December and employees report that new time sheet requirements have been instituted, but not uniformly. “For most of us exactly how Diann calculates our payroll is a mystery and we think she wants to keep it that way,” commented one employee.

“We will certainly address issues such as these in any contract we negotiate with WCCS,” explained Pieper. “I have negotiated many different contracts and we always take the approach of tailoring the contract to the unique circumstances surrounding each employer and the interests of those specific employees. Consistency and a reduction in ambiguity in personnel and payroll policies at Head Start will certainly be addressed in our contract negotiations.”

Meanwhile Gravino has sent out “fact sheets” to all employees campaigning against the unionization effort. While NLRB rules do not forbid employers from such efforts national Head Start policies do forbid such behavior. “Federal Head Start grant funds must not be used to 'assist, promote or deter union organizing.' The Head Start Act thus prohibits the use of Federal Head Start funds for activities such as: preparing and mailing materials intended to assist, promote or deter union organizing; hiring or consulting legal counsel or consultants to advise the agency about how to assist, promote or deter union organizing; holding meetings during regular duty hours whose purpose is to influence Head Start staff regarding union efforts to organize employees; managers of Head Start programs planning or conducting activities during their work hours to assist, promote or deter union organizing; and encouraging Policy Councils, Committees or other community or parent groups to assist, promote or deter union organizing.”