Head Start workers look to union?


By Mike Kroll

The employees of West Central Community Services, the parent organization over Head Start programs in Knox and Warren Counties, universally love working with the pre-school children they serve but many feel their boss is a tyrant. According to these employees working conditions under executive director Diann Gravino have become intolerable and that is why they sought out representation from the Service Employees International Union this winter.

A group of Head Start employees contacted SEIU officials by phone in early February and met later that month. A petition seeking a formal vote on unionization was passed among Head Start employees in early March with more than three-quarters of the non-management employees signing. On March 7th an organizing committee headed by Alicia Anderson attempted to present this petition to Gravino; Gravino refused to accept it. On March 24th Gravino fired Anderson, ostensibly for reasons totally unrelated to the unionization effort.

"I was fired because of my involvement with the union, it's as simple as that," explained Anderson. "I was a long-time employee with a good record but I was fired for bogus reasons to help prevent formation of a union at Head Start. Diann [Gravino] runs Head Start to suit her whims and she will tolerate no dissent or challenge to her authority. You just don't question anything she says or does and she isn't about to tolerate a union. And I wasn't the only union organizer fired in March. A Monmouth teacher was fired on March 15th and others are being harassed into quiting out of frustration."

"I don't know exactly what to say," said Gravino when asked about the status of unionization efforts. "As of right now I have not received anything official from the NLRB (National Labor Relations Board). The national Head Start organization has some very specific rules about how we are supposed to handle this. I am not allowed to discuss the union, pro or con, as a Head Start director. I know that some of our employees have spoken with union representatives but I honestly have no idea where they are in the process."

When pressed Gravino acknowledged that some employees did approach her but she rebuffed them. "Sure, some of our employees tried to hand something to me as I left the office one day but I refused to take it on advice of our local attorney. Until we receive something official from the NLRB I am just going to operate as if there nothing happening with regard to a local Head Start union."

Gravino's employees are clearly intimidated by her and fear reprisal if their names are used in this story. "There's nothing more she can do to me now," adds Anderson, "but lots of other Head Start employees are single parents who depend on this income to support their family and everybody knows there just aren't many other jobs around right now." I met with a group of Head Start employees ranging from teachers to classroom aides to bus drivers and playground supervisors and they all told similar stories about the capricious manner in which Gravino allegedly runs Head Start.

Although written policies and procedures do exist at Head Start the employees claim that Gravino changes them at will and regularly issues oral dictates the basis of which can be found nowhere in the written policies. Everything from rate of pay, type of employment, employee benefits, classroom policies, required paperwork and even fraternization between employees is subject to incongruent interpretation by Gravino. "Things have really gotten much worse since talk of unionization began," commented one employee. "Since this began Diann has done her best to squash any support for a union and she has tried to isolate those she thinks are the troublemakers."

When told that some employees feared retaliation for their union activities Gravino was direct, "There's nothing to retaliate against at this point. People can allege anything they want but I am constrained in how I can respond. One issue is that our employees are not public service employees." Head Start is funded almost entirely by Federal grant funds but each Head Start operation is run as a quasi-private operation according to the guidelines these grants are conditioned upon.

Many of the concerns relate to incredibly inconsistent payroll policies according to employees. "At times she tells teachers that we are exempt employees and not subject to overtime while other times she says we are paid on an hourly basis. But hours worked aren't shown on our pay stubs and there can be huge unexplainable differences from paycheck to paycheck." Most Head Start employees are ten month positions and like other teachers some have opted to have their pay spread across twelve months rather than ten, a common practice among teachers. Last summer, according to employees, a number of teachers who were expecting summer paychecks received none and were told by Gravino that they were overpaid during the school year and no money was left for the summer.

Another employee says that she had to file a grievance to collect pay for time she took off when her father died in early 2004. "Diann said the written policy wasn't supposed to apply to bus drivers and janitors but I eventually got paid after the board heard my grievance. Then Diann changed the personnel policies to specifically exclude bus drivers so when my mother died last December I couldn't collect bereavement pay for attending her funeral."

Bus drivers complained that their pay doesn't represent their actual hours of work. That much of the time they are not on their route but much wait around nonetheless is unpaid. Teachers and classroom aides say they are told that they must "volunteer" their time for evening or weekend events with neither pay nor comp time provided. Concerns were also stated about clear violations of Head Starts' prohibition against nepotism and gross inconsistencies in employee supervision. "Diann has her favorites who can do no wrong and then there are the rest of us who work in constant fear that she will just create a reason out of thin air to write us up."

"I believe in this program very much. I love the job I was hired to do and the kids I work with every day, but the management policies here are abusive. We aren't even supposed to know how much sick time we have earned. Diann told us we cannot talk to the financial person about any of our payroll questions, only her, but she can't give a straight answer."

"Ever since talk of the union began Diann has been taking great pains to prohibit conversation among employees at work, even during breaks and lunch time. We aren't even allowed on company premises before or after assigned work hours and some of us have to eat our lunches out in our cars because Diann won't let us share a common area for breaks."

"We are trying to form this union because we want to be treated fairly and with respect by our boss. There are a lot of really good people working here who love the kids but are growing to hate coming to work because of how Diann treats us. More and more are simply quitting rather than put up with the insanity around here."

Meanwhile, some Head Start employee must have complained to the Illinois Department of Labor. Investigator Amy De Bishop arrived late last fall to begin looking into allegations that Head Start wasn't adhering to Illinois rules regarding working hours and pay, overtime and proper record keeping. The results of that investigation have not yet been made public according to employees but they now must maintain not one but two sets of time cards. In addition, employees report that representatives from the regional Head Start office in Chicago has been contacting individual local employees about how the program is being run in Knox and Warren counties.

Local Head Start employees have been speaking with Al Pieper, vice president of SEIU Local 73's downstate division. Local 73 is actively working to organize childcare workers, including Head Start operations, across its Illinois and Indiana territory. SEIU represents public service employees nationwide with their entry into Head Start representation a relatively recent phenomenon. Union officials say they are working not only toward higher wages and benefits but also expanded training and greater consistency in how Head Start employees are treated. Apparently the management issues that local Head Start employees are unhappy with are not uncommon.

Additionally, the children served by Head Start are an overriding concern to both local employees and the SEIU. They claim that current conditions lead to too much staff turnover and therefore inconsistency to the students. There are also issues about maintaining proper employee training and experience and the professionalism of Head Start workers. Local employees say that they have invested much of themselves into Head Start and just want to be treated with the dignity and respect expected of professionals.

At the present time SEIU represents Head Start workers in Kankakee, Joliet, McHenry and Lake Counties. The union's website reports that Head Start management has fought them every step of the way in unionizing their employees. This has gone on to the extent that SEIU has filed unfair labor practices suits against various Head Start agencies that have threatened to outsource non-teacher jobs if organized and allegedly retaliated against employees at the forefront of union organizing activities.

"If I receive official information about formation of a union by the NLRB you will be among the first to know," promised Gravino.