Local 693 - Dakota County Library

In Proctor, Action Turns the Table on Takebacks

Marcie Keppers and Tracy Gellatly helped fight off concessions in the Proctor schools.

When Proctor school employees started bargaining a new contract this winter, they faced more than a list of concessions from the school district. They also faced direct retaliation for things they were doing to stand up for their rights.

But the AFSCME members, who are part of Local 66, refused to blink. They fought through lies, put up with disrespectful behavior, and gave each other the courage to stand up to their bosses. They stuck together at the bargaining table, they stuck together in the schools, they made sure they had their priorities straight, they mobilized to keep their fight visible – and they made sure they had fun doing it.

The result: Their contract did more than fight off all the takebacks; it actually gained ground.

The union fought with a variety of tactics, but every tactic relied on the work of a membership “contact team” they had created months earlier. A dozen members volunteered to keep in touch with a half-dozen other members in their work area. Even when the bargaining team sent out negotiation reports via email, it was contact team members who spread the word – and collected feedback.

“Everybody was up to date on everything all the time,” says Marcie Keppers, who is secretary of the unit. “We knew what was going on. We knew what the fight was.”

Staying informed, involved

Negotiators kept members in the loop in other ways. They made sure the bargaining team had representatives from different locations and job classifications. When crunch time came, negotiators asked members to vote on their priorities. Negotiators knew exactly where they could make a stand, says Tracy Gellatly, chair of the bargaining unit, because they knew members would back them up.

Members were also upfront in their support. They wore red on every day there was bargaining or a union meeting. (They chose red – instead of AFSCME green – because green is also the school district’s color.) The tactic was so effective in showing unity that some teachers joined in, even though they are not in AFSCME.

“It made us more visible – it got people talking,” Keppers says.

But members did more than talk. Before each bargaining session, they also chanted, yelled, and sang as they lined the hallway to the negotiations room – forming a gauntlet that school district negotiators had to walk past.

Making tactics backfire

The gauntlet was one way the union had fun during a stressful fight. It also caused the district’s own tactics to backfire. District negotiators had to walk the gauntlet only because they insisted on bargaining in the school’s media center. But the gauntlet bothered them so much that the superintendent actually used a back door one day to avoid it. Eventually, district negotiators gave up their home-court advantage and agreed to meet at a neutral site (as the union had requested all along).

When the union got tired of the superintendent saying, “It’s the right thing to do” – but not doing “the right thing” – they turned his words against him. They made buttons with his quote. Negotiators wore the buttons at the bargaining table; members wore them at work.

At the final bargaining session, the union even drove a wedge in the district’s own bargaining team. By the end, the superintendent no longer was at the table; school board and union negotiators hammered out the final language on their own.

No concessions – and more

The final deal fought off cuts in health insurance for some members. It restores accruals that the district tried to strip from paid vacation and sick days. It makes sure accruals are based on all the hours members work, not just on scheduled hours. It creates a fair system for “vouchering” additional work hours. It achieves long-delayed pay adjustments in three job classifications.

The contract also kept out the district’s attempts to change grievance language. Those changes would make it harder to arbitrate unsettled grievances. The changes also would make it nearly impossible to pursue class-action grievances – like the kind the union was pursuing on accruals.

“That we didn’t have any takebacks – that is huge,” Gellatly says. “Don’t be afraid to fight for what you want. It’s going to come with sacrifice, but I’d say: Don’t cave. Be strong. Be united.”

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