Dressed in black, and many with tears in their eyes, 46 striking Butler County Children Services social workers left the picket line and went back to their jobs Tuesday morning, signalling the end of their 16-day work stoppage.
Becky Palmer, president of the 127-member Butler County Children Services Independent Union, said striking social workers were dressed in black because they were “in mourning” for having to go back to work without a new contract in place. The union wants a new three-year deal with higher wages, which the county says it cannot afford.
Palmer said the union would continue to try to negotiate a deal with the county despite returning to work. However, there is no meeting date scheduled for further talks at this time.
The social workers strike is believed to be the first county government workers strike since the state began recognizing public employee unions in the 1980s, according to county officials. And while living without paychecks for nearly a month has been difficult, Palmer said the main reason workers are going back to work is for the families and children they serve who have suffered during the strike.
“At this time, we have elected to put aside what is best for ourselves, our families and our co-workers to return to our duties as social workers to do the best for the families we serve,” Palmer said during a news conference in front of the agency at 300 Fair Ave. “We simply cannot continue to sit by and watch as the agency obligations go unfulfilled, and those in charge repeatedly fail to make adequate arrangements to correct the problems.”
She said parents sought out their social workers on the picket line and called their cell phones at all hours because they hadn’t gotten responses from the agency during the strike.
County Administrator Charlie Young again refuted claims by the union that families weren’t being adequately served during his own news conference Tuesday. Young also thanked workers who stayed on the job during the past three weeks.
“We believe we’ve done an extraordinary job during this labor dispute, but that isn’t to say someone couldn’t have a complaint,” Young said. “We have had plenty of resources to meet the needs, and I am not aware of a complaint that has proven valid.”
An emotion-filled return
The first day back at work after the three-week strike was fraught with emotions for social workers — both frustration and finally some validation, Palmer said. Workers met almost all day with Children Services administration and a representative of the Employee Assistance Program.
When Assistant Director Bill Morrison told the striking social workers that they have been sorely missed, it was almost like a “slap in the face,” Palmer said, especially in light of comments by agency officials that operations were “business as usual” during the strike.
On the flip side, Palmer said supervisors who had been filling for the striking social workers praised them upon their return because they had learned from families the agency services what a good job they do.
“Those were the things that needed to be said to allow a little bit of healing,” Palmer said. “I’m so glad they said those things.”
Union wants to continue talks
Palmer said the union will continue to try to negotiate a contract with the county. She said she was expecting to get a proposal after another five-hour negotiating session on Monday, but the commissioners apparently rejected the proposal that was on the table. Palmer said she learned through an article in this newspaper that there was no deal.
She said the union offered to forego the unfair labor practices action it filed just before workers hit the picket line, if the county would forgive the $17,932 — individual bills range from a high of $540 and a low of $10 — the county fronted for two weeks of health insurance. In the labor practices action, the union alleged Butler County “bargained in bad faith” and “intimidated” employees who planned to strike. Palmer said they may have to involve the State Employment Relations Board again.
“We propose to continue to meet with administration in hopes of securing a mutually agreeable arrangement in the near future,” she said. “We’ll pursue the necessary steps through SERB to address the county’s failure to truly negotiate.”
The social workers walked a picket line for three weeks after 15 months of negotiations and a fact-finder recommendation failed. After three meetings with a federal mediator during the strike, the county has refused to budge from its “last, best and final offer” of a $550 lump-sum bonus for each of three years.
During the 16-day strike, the county saved $147,205 in wages, according to Human Resources Director Gary Sheets. Young said the county likely broke even if you add in the overtime and contracts the county had to enter into because of the strike.
“(The county saved) just in salaries, but there were costs to offset that in additional services we procured from agencies,” he said. “I would assume there was no net savings to the county from the strike.”
The divide between the county and the union is over wages. The union’s last known offer would cost the county an extra $523,280. The county’s $550 lump-sum figure amounts to an additional $219,288. At the outset of the strike the divide was more than $1 million, based on the fact-finder’s recommendation for 1.5/1.75/2 percent pay bump, with a re-opener in the third year to negotiate pay-for-performance, plus cost of living steps. The average social worker pay is $44,200.
Hamilton resident Carl Collins watched the social workers returning to work file into the Children Services building Tuesday. He said he is glad the strike is over but hopes the social workers eventually get what they want.
“I stand behind them 100 percent,” Collins said. “I think they deserve what they’re asking for. They do a lot of work for the community and children, and that’s what it’s all about.”