Oct. 9, 2003 – Both of the territory's teachers unions are filing petitions with the Public Employees Relations Board over the government's failure to implement scheduled salary increases, and the St. Croix unit has sued the government alleging breach of contract.
Vernelle De Lagarde, president of the St. Thomas-St. John local of the American Federation of Teachers, said the union decided on Wednesday to petition the PERB. "The motion is being prepared as we speak," she said on Thursday. "The governor has indicated he is not going to give us this year the 2003-2004 raises. They should have included us in the $235 million bond issue. They already had an obligation to an agreement we have."
She said the union hopes to file its petition with the PERB by Tuesday.
Tyrone Molyneaux, president of the St. Croix unit of the AFT, said his union has "already filed an unfair labor practice petition with PERB." The action was taken "about a week after our meeting with the governor," he said.
Gov. Charles W. Turnbull met with union representatives on Aug. 29 following his meeting with news media representatives to discuss the Fiscal Year 2004 budget he had just submitted to the Legislature.
On Sept. 26, the St. Croix AFT filed suit in Territorial Court against the government and Education Commissioner Noreen Michael seeking damages for breach of contract.
On Sept. 30, Molyneaux wrote to Karen Andrews, the administration's chief labor negotiator, asking if the pending $235 million bond issue would change the government's stance that it could not comply with a 2001 addendum to the teachers' contract promising a salary increase for the 2002-2003 school year.
De Lagarde said on Thursday that she was aware of that letter — and of Andrews' response.
A copy of Andrews' letter was made available to the Source. In it, Andrews wrote back to Molyneaux that she was "reminded of that old adage 'No good deed ever goes unpunished.'" She said that after an $11 million wage package effective Sept. 1, 2000, the AFT received an "unprecedented second 'bite of the apple' in the form of an additional $8.5 million for the 2001-2002 school year." She said a total of $22.6 million was paid to the AFT membership between Fiscal Years 2001 and 2003.
De Lagarde didn't dispute the figures. However, she said, "All it would cost the government is $2.3 million to implement the last year of our contract; that's only a 2.5 percent increase." She said the starting salary for entry-level teachers is now $26,500 when it should be $27,226 with the promised increase. "We're actually bringing in folks at the old salary schedule," she said.
The teachers "went for five years without having any salary increase," De Lagarde said. "So, to indicate that millions were given to us — that still doesn't amount to what's already owed to us, the big retro that's already out there. We should all be on step, and we're not."
As to whether the bond issue will change anything as far as the teachers' standing, "the short answer is 'no'," Andrews told Molyneaux. She pointed out that the money is all committed — $100 million for income-tax refunds and vendor payments, and the balance for "various capital projects and for the cost of insurance."
And as far as the St. Croix union's lawsuit, "It's anyone's guess when it will be heard," Molyneaux said on Thursday. "The government has 20 days to respond to the complaint, and so far we haven't received any notice. It could be from six months to a year for a court day because of the crowded court calendar."
Both teachers union leaders also expressed frustration at the governor's lack of candor concerning how his proposed 36-hour work week would affect teachers, whose contract calls for them to work a number of days per year, not hours. De Lagarde said the governor had told them the work reduction wouldn't affect "teachers, nurses, firefighters or police officers." But he then said that he was speaking from a "layman's point of view," she said.
Molyneaux said he had asked Turnbull the same question: "I asked him about how that would be managed, and he said the department heads would 'take care of it.'"
Molyneaux's union is leading a movement to recall Turnbull. (See "St. Thomas union joins in recall petition drive".) De Lagarde said on Thursday that the St. Thomas-St. John teachers union has not decided whether to join in the effort. "We have had several discussions, but no decision has been made to support the recall," she said.
The current AFT contract, which covers the territory's public school teachers and paraprofessional, expires in August of 2004. AFT officials have stated they will not return to work when the 2004-05 school year begins next fall without a new contract in place.
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