By Joel Warner
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The hair-netted men and women who prepare and serve lunch every day in school cafeterias across Denver are fed up. They have been for years. Until recently, they kept silent out of fear for their jobs. But concerns about low wages that max out at about $10 an hour, little or no health or retirement benefits and no unemployment compensation during summer months may soon find their way to the bargaining table.
Rumblings began in 1998, when a small group of vocal cafeteria workers tried to organize their colleagues. Their earliest efforts were unsuccessful, because most of the workers were too scared to speak out against the Denver Schools Food Service Association, the union that represents hourly workers and their supervisors. By October of that year, however, they had managed to collect 260 signatures from hourly workers in favor of forming their own union ("Lunch-Lady Land," July 8, 1999). But when they turned in their petition to DPS, they were told that they'd missed the small window of time in which workers can petition for representation other than DSFSA. The school district had already granted recognition to the association; dissatisfied workers would have to wait until that window of opportunity opened again in January 2001.
Hourly food-service workers eventually turned to the Communications Workers of America, which represents school custodians, who share many of their workplace concerns. CWA Local 7777 recently asked the Denver Board of Education to pass a resolution pledging to be neutral in order to give employees a chance to learn about the CWA without interference from their bosses. CWA organizers also asked the board to allow them access to workers on school grounds so that they can educate employees about the union before the next petition period, which runs from January 2 to 22.
Although the boardmembers chose not to vote on the resolution, they assured the union that employees won't be prohibited from receiving information or retaliated against for signing petitions, says CWA organizing coordinator Kevin Hilton. School board president Elaine Berman says there are specific labor rules that dictate exactly how union reps can approach employees. "We're trying to work with them," she adds.
CWA organizers are trying to convince workers of the benefits of joining their union. They claim that the CWA will be a better champion for health insurance than the DSFSA, which did not secure health insurance for hourly workers until last year, and they promise to fight so that hourly workers can collect unemployment over the summer, when school is out of session. (The union is currently providing representation for a Denver food-service worker whose request for unemployment two summers ago was denied and whose case is now before the Colorado Supreme Court.)
But Hilton says his organizers are having a hard time getting information to employees at many schools. "Managers are escorting workers to their cars and telling us to leave school grounds. It's getting really crazy," he says.
DPS spokesman Mark Stevens says the district has a long track record of cooperating with unions and groups of employees who want to form new ones. "I think our being open to organized labor is evident in the number of groups we recognize: nine," he says. "It's a burden to manage and a burden to negotiate, but it's a burden we accept. The board is very generous in recognizing groups as they come along."
Hilton says the CWA would like at least 60 percent of hourly workers to sign the petition before scheduling a vote, but organizers have gotten no assurance from DPS that they will even be able to separate hourly workers from managers in their union petition; if DPS doesn't allow the bargaining units to be split, the CWA wants to represent both hourly workers and managers. If that happens, hourly workers would still face the same dilemma.
"Hourly workers haven't had an opportunity to be heard, because managers are included in their unit," Hilton says. "The hourly workers should be given the opportunity to form their own union."