By a decisive 219 to 124 vote Monday night, St. Thomas-St. John teachers union members voted to reject the three-year contract negotiated over weeks by their American Federation of Teachers representatives and the Turnbull administration.
Earlier in the day, their St. Croix colleagues had voted 165 to 142 in favor of ratifying the pact.
St. Thomas-St. John union negotiation team member William Smith said Monday night after the vote was tallied that ratification is a territorywide issue, and that the final outcome is determined by adding the votes of the two districts. That would make the final tally 289 in favor of the new contract and 361 opposed.
Smith said of the split between the two districts, "That's a tough thing. We don't know what happens now." He said the St. Thomas-St. John local's executive council met briefly around 10 p.m. after the votes were counted Monday night and will meet again "in the late afternoon" Tuesday at the AFT headquarters in Sub Base to discuss the union's next move.
The 2000-01 school year is scheduled to begin Sept. 11 after having been pushed back two weeks by Education Commissioner Ruby Simmonds, who cited construction still under way on some school grounds. Adding to the unsettling conditions is a reported shortfall of at least a hundred teachers.
Monday's meeting, set for 5:30 p.m. in the large conference room at Palms Court Harbourview, started by around 5:45 and was over by 8 p.m. except for the tallying of votes. The room was packed and several union members described it as "a good turnout." Most of those who spoke were opposed to the new contract.
Normally, voting on union issues is by a show of hands, but a number of those present pressed for a paper ballot this time. "People tried to make motions to postpone the vote but failed," a Charlotte Amalie High School faculty member said. "Eventually the leaders said it was time to take the vote, and people started yelling that it had to be a secret ballot. Someone made a motion to that effect and it passed."
A teacher at Eudora Kean High School said many felt they needed more time to review and discuss the contract package before voting. "I'm very angry that they called this meeting on a Monday night and didn't give us time to think about what was offered," she said. "I really disagree with the union's tactics. They announced the agreement on Friday but wouldn't tell us what it was. That kind of behavior is incredibly short sighted and depends on people panicking."
"A lot of people didn't like what was being presented," another Eudora Kean teacher said. She said longtime union president Glen Smith, who has stepped aside to run for the Senate but was on the negotiating team, "didn't voice his opinion. He just gave the facts of what happened in the negotiations and said how hard it was and that we did the best we could.' A lot of the union members stood up and basically said, If that's the best you can do, you should have just left the table.' "
Glen Smith, soon-to-depart St. Croix AFT chapter president Cecil Benjamin and AFT mainland negotiator George Bordenave signed the new contract agreement, the first in eight years, for the union. Administration chief negotiator Karen Andrews signed for the government.
At Monday night's meeting got under way, union leaders passed out copies of the revisions to the contract and of negotiated salary schedules. According to union officials, the agreement includes $8.6 million in salary increases for union members for the 1994-95 and 2000-01 school years, while the AFT agrees to waive all rights to negotiated wages for the 1995-96 year. The pact specifies that the government and the union can re-enter into wage negotiations for the third year of the contract.
While those terms were far from ideal, what upset the members more was that "they did not have a copy of the agreement that they had made with the government to forgo the retroactive [negotiated pay increases] and to accept that the government would only owe 50 percent," the CAHS faculty member said. "That caused a hugh amount of dissension. Many people felt they didn't want us to know what it was."
As complaints persisted, she said, "Eventually, someone went over to the AFT office and made copies" of the single sheet of paper. And from these they read:
The AFT "agrees to release the Virgin Islands government from 50 percent of any and all claims to retroactive monies due and owing those bargaining unit members who are employed with the Virgin Islands government on the date of implementation of the 2000-2001 salary agreement."
For the voting, a cardboard box served as a makeshift paper ballot repository. Many people resolved to stay after casting their votes to observe the ballot counting.
One teacher said while the package wasn't what the teachers would like to have seen, it probably was as good as was possible, given the territory's economic straits. Another said it "didn't really hurt all that much to give up retroactive that we were never going to get anyway." Another took offense that "a minority were not very gracious to the negotiating team," which had "put in an awful lot of hours and had done the best it could do."
But what the vote meant in terms of what teachers will do now a fortnight away from the start of classes remained to be seen. Neither Glen Smith nor Vernell DeLagarde, acting union local president, could be reached for comment Monday night.
Editor's note: For details of the St. Croix vote, see the story below headlined "St. Croix teachers vote to ratify contract."