Wednesday September 12, 2012

PITTSFIELD -- City school teachers and the Pittsfield School Committee are on the verge of a tentative contract agreement, one that could end a string of one-year deals ratified following sometimes contentious negotiations.

In a joint statement issued by the United Educators of Pittsfield and the committee, both sides believe they are nearing a settlement that would replace the contract that expired three weeks ago.

"We continue to make progress toward a fair settlement at each meeting," said UEP President Gail Yates. "We are hopeful that we will conclude negotiations in a relatively short time period."

Since talks began in late March, the city's largest union and school board negotiators have held 18 bargaining sessions, including one on Wednesday. The meetings, often more than three hours, have gradually proved productive, according to School Committee Chairman Alfred E. "Alf" Barbalunga.

"I am very pleased with the UEP leadership and the School Committee Negotiations and Personnel subcommittee," Barbalunga stated. "We're not quite there yet, but we have seen tangible progress and hope to positively resolve this contract shortly."

The 590-member UEP continues to work under the contract that end Aug. 24. The one-year agreement was devoid of across-the-board salary increases, but did include 3 percent pay hikes for those at the top of the pay scale.

The teachers union and School Committee have said they want to sign a three-year agreement, after striking one-year deals for four consecutive years dating back to the 2008-2009 school year.

Both sides had attempted to reach a more customary three-year proposal during the previous negotiations, but the UEP and School Committee were sharply divided over several non-money issues.

The string of shorter contracts were primarily due to the city's volatile budget situation. The agreement for the 2008-09 school year resulted in a modest 1.5 percent across-the-board salary increase, followed by a contract that kept base pay in check for 2009-10.

The 2010-11 contract resulted in a 1 percent pay hike that totaled $335,000 for union members.

The school board and UEP hope a new negotiating strategy employed at the start of the current contract talks will resolve some long-standing issues.

"The parties are engaged in a new form of bargaining, interest-based bargaining, that lends itself to much more open and deep discussions of the issues," Yates said. "This process takes longer but has proven to be beneficial."

Interest-based, or collaborative bargaining, begins with a philosophical approach to reaching a new contract. The UEP and School Committee have previously relied on the traditional collective bargaining process that involves union and management having pre-determined positions on issues such as wages and health benefits.

While collective bargaining resulted in the four, one-year contracts, the settlements for the school years of 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 came after months of contentious talks. In both cases, a state mediator was called in to resolve the labor dispute and teachers enacted a process known as "work to rule" in order to spur a tentative agreement. Under work to rule, union members strictly follow the terms of the current contract, which may mean not providing extra help to students or work on school activities beyond what is contractually required.

To reach Dick Lindsay:
rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6233.