Last Tuesday, February 6, 2018, there were three floors of Providence City Hall packed with members of the Providence Teachers Union to protest Mayor Jorge Elorza’s State of The City Address.
(LISTEN HERE: http://www.rirelevant.com/news/listen-exclusive-audio-interview-providence-teachers-union-president-calabro/)
With signage calling him out for the disparity in wages between what is offered to the majority-male municipal unions as opposed to the majority-female teachers union, the event was much larger in size than the rally held in December 2016 on Wickenden Street across from the school administration building to protest the expansion of Achievement First charter school.
“Well, like anything else, it got mixed reviews, depends upon who was doing the reporting and who was doing the media coverage,” says Maribeth Calabro, the organization’s president, in an exclusive interview. “In some cases there was an understanding of what we were trying to accomplish and in other cases I believe there were some people who said that it was rowdy and disrespectful and a wide variety of things. I think I was called ‘rude’ at one point. So I think it was mixed reviews in terms of media but I can honestly say I have gotten nothing but positive feedback from my membership, I have gotten positive feedback from people in the community, I have gotten positive feedback from my own personal neighbors, and so, in general, I was absolutely pleased with what happened and I think that we turned out in large numbers and showed that our teachers are frustrated and ready to talk and hopefully someone will listen.”
The current contract negotiations have come to an impasse. They’ve included striking moments of changed terms. Calabro even believes that city-side negotiators have negotiated in bad faith.
“From the beginning we had had fits and starts. I am very transparent with my membership in terms of the progress or the progression of negotiations,” she says. “And I think that when, on January 3rd, the Mayor boasted of a $5.4 million surplus and sixteen days later he sent his negotiator to tell me that there was no money for raises for us, that’s extremely frustrating. We found it to be disrespectful and a little disingenuous because, basically, we want to know where $5.4 million went in sixteen days! And all throughout the process, I’ve stated before that I didn’t think we were being taken seriously to begin with!”
She indicates the staffing of the negotiations team itself is indicative of this.
“When you send a team of two [negotiators] and the first person gets fired the next day and they send a team of two again and that person takes a job with the Governor’s office two weeks later, and we’ve had a variety of revolving door people come in from the City side. And our team has been consistent from the get-go in terms of everything that we’ve asked for, we’ve been consistent in our membership. I don’t substitute in and out. This isn’t a game. It’s not a soccer game or a football game where you tag people in and out. We were serious from the get-go and I’m not quite sure that the City was.”
“I think it’s sad that we have gotten to this point and I also interesting that people would call me ‘rude’ and whatever else they called me in the past couple of days,” she explains. “We are not an organization, as you know, that comes out and fights every little thing. We’re not constantly complaining. We’re not constantly in the news as rabble rousers or people like that. So people have to realize that, in order for us to have gotten to the point that we got to on Tuesday, that says that a lot of things have happened to us.”
The two major factors in the negotiations that the public does not completely grasp has to do with healthcare and the salary system. Right now the City is looking to make the teachers pay more for their healthcare while reducing salaries.
“We co-share our healthcare, which I don’t believe a large amount of people understand that we do co-share, I think that they believe that we get our healthcare for nothing and that is not in fact the case,” she says. “I think it was 2003-2004, we have actually two sets of people who co-share differently based on if they were hired from 2004 and beyond. So those people pay a significant amount of co-share for their health benefits and those of us who were hired prior to 2004 also pay a pretty large amount for a co-share and I know the Mayor says that we got a raise in the last contract in the last day of the school year or whatever but that raise was equivalent to I think it was $19.00 a paycheck so it doesn’t even begin to touch the a) cost of living increases and b) the increases in healthcare [costs].”
“[The healthcare demarcation after 2004 occurred because] the PTU had to come forward and had to basically find their own raises within the contract that they currently had and what we decided at that time, the membership voted on, was to have anyone who was hired after 2004 pay a different amount for co-share which at the time may have sounded like a good idea,” she says. “But now that we’re in 2017, thirteen years later, we have a significant amount of people paying a different co-share and that’s not good. It’s not good for our membership, it’s not good for morale, and it’s not equitable.”
She goes on to explain the salary system.
Ready to Negotiate
“We used to have a ten step salary scale and we, once again, in negotiations, we moved to a twelve step salary scale, and those of us who were at top step, which would be myself for one and many other teachers, we only realize a raise in terms of contract negotiations when other people moving up the steps, which we had moved up in previous years, get a step increase plus a raise, so those of us who were there when we took the zero, we got nothing. And at least those people who had a step got their step increased. So there’s a lot of nuances to contracts that cities don’t express widely.”
“It needs to be clear to people and the taxpayers of Providence that we’ve already taken several pay freezes and we’ve taken zeroes. We took step freezes. We went from paying nothing for healthcare, which obviously is not a realistic thing, but we went from paying nothing for co-sharing healthcare and now we’re up in 20% co-share!”
Another issue is how the district negotiators say they are short of funding until they find their own project to spend on.
“I don’t have, nor does any of my membership have, any concerns with materials that are being purchased that directly impact student learning because that’s what we’re here for! At the end of the day, our goal and our focus is to student achievement. That being said, when the District wants to find money for their pet projects or the next shiny thing, they find the money. [School Business Manager and City Controller] Mr. [Michael] D’Antuono went off and purchased a million dollar timekeeping system and that money would be better spent either a) on kids, or b) at least to offer some kind of compensation to teachers. They are well within their rights as management to maintain and assure that their employees are arriving to work on time. That is in their purview as management. So why we had to invest in a million dollar timekeeping operation to have checks and balances on the lowest-paid clerks and secretaries and teachers is just nonsensical…It’s counter-intuitive to what we’re doing.”
“I don’t have an issue with [newly-hired] Culture Coordinators, that’s not my concern. My concern is that if you’re telling us there’s no money for raises, then how is it you found $500,000 to pay Culture Coordinators for these new positions to go into the schools and you’re going to pay them at a salary takes most tenured teachers ten years to get to! What is that saying to those teachers?”
Calabro insists that any union actions will not have a negative impact on classroom instruction.
“What happened Tuesday night was an adult action that occurred after school hours which was in no way, shape, or form meant to impact our kids and that’s why we did it,” she says. “I’m sure there are people, including the Superintendent, that are concerned that maybe what would happen in the future would impact our classrooms and our teaching but like I said over and over again in that February oh so shortly ago that we were all fired, that Monday morning we all showed up to work. So if anyone wants to make the stretch and say we’re not about kids, then they have short-term memory problems because we are about kids and we did return despite being fired to work and did everything that we were supposed to do.”
At the end of the day, Calabro maintains that teachers are committed to their students, first and foremost.
“A lot of our students are impacted by ICE and the threat of having their family members deported or even themselves being deported. That’s why it’s critical that we stay focused and let our students know that they are welcome in our schools and that we will do our very best to protect them at all costs while they are in our care.”