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Strike continues as St. Croix swings outcome

By Jamie Bate, St. Thomas Source, 2 November 2000

St. Croix teachers Monday afternoon again tipped the scales against ratifying a wage agreement with the Turnbull administration.

On St. Croix, the final tally was 505 against the latest offer and 94 in favor. On St. Thomas, 412 wanted to ratify the agreement while 177 voted no. There were four void ballots.

After adding up the total, 682 no votes to 506 yes, Vernelle de Lagarde, interim president of the St. Thomas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, summed it up: "We're still on strike."

A raucous crowd filled the Educational Complex auditorium to capacity Monday as leaders of the St. Croix chapter of the AFT explained the latest offer. But when it came time to tally the votes, it was clear that Tuesday morning would start without teachers or students in classrooms, the 15th day of the strike.

The rejection is the second by the approximately 2,000-strong AFT in three tries. The first tentative agreement in late August was accepted by the St. Croix membership but rejected by their counterparts in the St. Thomas AFT. Both chapters then voted to strike on Sept. 15 but didn't walk out until Oct. 11.

After another round of negotiations with the Turnbull administration, on Oct. 23 AFT members again cast their ballots. But it was the St. Croix chapter that rejected the offer, sending teachers, para-professionals and support staff back to the picket lines.

That vote was 635-320 against the agreement compared to Monday's 682-506.

The sticking point, said Tyrone Molyneaux, president of the St. Croix AFT, is a section of the rejected agreement that calls for AFT members to waive step increases between the 1995-96 school year and the 2000-01 year.

"In consideration," the government's wage proposal said, "each current AFT member waiving this right shall receive the sum of $1,000 . . . from monies saved as a result of the strike and will not exceed $2,377,000."

Molyneaux said teachers are currently being paid at 1993 levels and haven't had a negotiated contract since 1991.

Another hurdle, retroactive wages, was ordered off the table by Gov. Charles Turnbull, but will have to be dealt with during future talks.

In the meantime, teachers on Thursday will experience their first payless payday since the strike started, said Wendy Garcia, an early childhood special education teacher on St. Croix.

"The crunch will really start at that point," she said. "That's when people are really going to start feeling it."

Terrence Nelson, a teacher at the Educational Complex and an AFT building representative, said he wants a solution that is "compatible with a year 2000 economy."

"I hope were sending a message to the governor, the Senate and the chief negotiator: Stop the bull and give us the bread," he said.

The government's first offer included $8.6 million for salary increases. After that was rejected, an $11 million package put together by Turnbull and the Legislature was offered, some $9 million of which would go to fund increases for the 1994-95 and 2000-01 school years. The remaining $1.9 million would be used for fringe benefits, according to the proposed wage agreement.