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AFT rejects new pact; Strike resumes Monday

By Jean P. Greaux Jr., St. Thomas Source, 24 October 2000

Public school teachers will be back on the picket line Monday following their rejection of the latest offer by the Virgin Islands government. The teachers, para-professionals and support staff members of the American Federation of Teachers Locals 1825 and 1826 voted 635-320 against the agreement during simultaneous meetings on St. Thomas and St. Croix Sunday afternoon.

The contract was hammered out between negotiators for the AFT and government officials Saturday night. According to the agreement, the entire $11 million approved by the Legislature in special session was earmarked for the AFT. The government acquiesced to the union's demands by removing any further discussion about retroactive wages from the bargaining table, backing away from its initial request that the AFT forgo 50 percent of those back wages.

In addition, the government, at the union's request, removed language that would have updated what the government said was "outmoded and often costly language to meet changing circumstances."

Of the $11 million, $9 million would have funded salary increases by members of the union for 1994-95 and for the 2000-2001 school years. Another $1.9 million would be used for fringe benefits.

The agreement also said the AFT agreed to waive and forfeit any and all rights to negotiate wages for the school year 1995-96, through the date of the implementation of a successor agreement. In addition, the contract provided that each current AFT member would receive $500 within 30 days of ratification. The government would have relied on monies saved during the strike to fund the $500 allotment to union members.

The vote Sunday was the reverse of August's count when the original agreement was rejected. Then, St. Croix supported the pact while St. Thomas voted against it, causing the agreement to fail. On Sunday, it was St. Croix that caused the agreement to be rejected. "The vote on St. Thomas was 262-191 in favor of the agreement while St. Croix voted 58-444 against the agreement," said Vernelle de Lagarde, interim president of Local 1825, St. Thomas-St. John. She said the agreement would have provided an approximate 12-13 percent increase in each teacher's salary. It would have also provided that no striking AFT member would have been subject to disciplinary action for participating in the strike.

Following the vote, de Lagarde briefed reporters, who were excluded from the ratification meeting attended by about 400 AFT members. "This officially means that we are back in the strike lines on Monday," she said. Asked whether returning to the negotiating table with the government was still an option, she said, "I think we have to get over what happened here and try to rebuild again."

She said the overwhelming vote against the agreement in St. Croix centered around the $11 million which teachers said was simply not enough. But on St. Thomas, there was a different view. One teacher who asked not to be named said, "I looked forward to going back to the classroom tomorrow, but St. Croix has done us in." Elsewhere in the room, there was rejoicing that the pact was rejected. "Yes!, Yes!, Yes!" proclaimed one teacher.

Gov. Charles W. Turnbull and the government's Chief Labor Negotiator Karen Andrews have insisted since the strike began on Oct. 11 that the $11 million figure is the best the government can offer.

The administration's reaction was clearly one of disappointment on Sunday night.

Andrews said, "After several long days and nights of very tough negotiations and deliberations on both sides, we all thought that late Saturday night we had arrived at a tentative agreement which could be accepted by the membership of the AFT," adding, "it is very disappointing, particularly in light of the numerous concessions the government made in arriving at the latest tentative wage agreement which is the best one which could be derived, given all of the circumstances."

Throughout the negotiating process, Andrews said, the government bent over backwards in an attempt to "ensure that our children could be back in their classrooms sooner rather than later. "After all these concessions, our disappointment at the rejection by the AFT membership is profound. We will have to wait for official notification from the AFT leadership before proceeding," she added.

Education Commissioner Ruby Simmonds echoed Andrews' sentiments saying, "Again, it would appear that our children will suffer the brunt of the decision taken by the AFT rank-and-file members." Simmonds said it was anticipated that after the agreement was reached on Saturday night, "we would be able to return to some kind of normalcy on Monday morning."

Simmonds added that "the decision by St. Croix to overwhelmingly reject the agreement is unsettling for all of us who have spent long and arduous days, on both sides, hammering out what we believed to be the best agreement for all parties."

The government's negotiating team will convene on Monday morning to review the results of Sunday's vote against the wage agreement.