While Labor Day represents the end of summer for most, others identify the reason people honor the holiday is because it is a celebration of labor unions and all the accomplishments and successes made over the last 100 years.
“Even if you are a non-union employee, you have still reaped the benefits the unions have made possible for you at work and in your working environment like an eight-hour work day, weekends off, vacation days, paid sick leave, paid personal days, family medical leave and mandatory breaks,” Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT) Field Service Director Ray Roskos said.
On the forefront of civil rights, labor unions, for over a century, have spearheaded workers rights concerning child labor laws, health benefits, retirement security, unemployment insurance and safety standards.
“So all of those things in every walk of life enjoy, unions have fought for and gained, and ultimately years and years and years ago people even lost their lives fighting for those rights,” Roskos said. “So it’s kind of a reality check when think why we really celebrate Labor Day, and what the purpose of the holiday is.”
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Roskos has been representing about 15 local unions in the metro-east area since 2011, which covers about 1,200 employees ranging from teachers to support staff like secretaries, cafeteria workers, custodians and bus drivers.
Roskos represents O’Fallon School District 90 and O’Fallon Township High School District 203 (OTHS).
Not lacking in experience, Roskos served as an IFT organizer subsequent to his current role, and before that as a postal union representative for many years.
Helping with collective bargaining, filing grievances and training in all areas of leadership are just some of the responsibilities on Roskos’ plate.
“Whatever the local needs is what I do, sometimes it’s just a matter of giving some advice or direction on something they feel they can’t handle and other times he is negotiating or talking to legislators,” Roskos said.
Sometimes his work is focused on clarifying the language of a contract to a union worker because there may be a situation where the employer handles something that the union doesn’t necessarily feel represents the purpose of the section of a contract.
“I get called for a whole host of things, but for example, a lot of it is interpretation because not everyone deciphers the verbiage of a contract the same,” Roskos said. “One example is when a teacher may be asked by the employer to drive from building to building, but it cuts into his or her planning time. Or, layoffs in the spring. Or, I just had a situation where a district overpaid an employee and the union president wasn’t sure on what their legal rights were.”
Covering a wide range of workers, Roskos said his IFT has different constituency councils.
“So we have public employees, so we represent state and county workers. We have a unit that just newly organized that’s St. Clair County probation officers are under us, which I don’t represent them but they are serviced out of this office in Fairview Heights,” Roskos said.
But, the IFT’s umbrella reaches past that to cover more such as higher education workers like community colleges and university employees.
The national union — the American Federation of Teachers also represents workers in the healthcare arena like nurses and hospital workers, which Roskos said there’s less than a handful in Illinois.
“Right now, I’m dealing with back-to-school things. Mainly, in this time of year, we are faced with contract issues like interpretation of contracts in terms of things like salary schedules,” Roskos said.
O’Fallon School District 90 Superintendent Carrie Hruby said the responsibility for maintaining a positive working environment for union workers is carried by all involved parties.
“We all share responsibility, and work well together when issues arise. It’s one of the many reasons the district maintains a high standard of excellence, as a positive working environment for staff who then directly impacts the learning environment for students,” Hruby said.
Hruby said, “specifically, we meet formally every month to discuss any issues that come up during the year.”
Roskos gave an example of a situation he recently dealt with in District 90.
“In District 90 there’s been a lot of things that we’ve been working closely with Hruby on. They wanted to create some new positions, so we worked on that with them, making sure the new position didn’t violate anything in the collective bargaining agreement,” he said.
Staff can also share feedback with their union representatives in a more informal manner who then share collective input with the principals or the superintendent.
“Last spring we offered staff an additional opportunity to share input via an anonymous climate survey. Not surprisingly the survey results were very positive, with a strong majority stating they are treated as professionals and feel valued in their positions,” she said.
Roskos said, typically, the union leaders have a good working rapport with superintendents.
“It’s not a confrontational relationship — it’s more of a collaborative relationship. I mean, obviously, there’s going to be things we don’t always agree on at times, but for the most part we build relationships with the administration in schools and school boards, and we try to work together to solve issues versus sitting across the table fighting over issues,” Roskos said.
When challenges or differences present themselves and either side is in disagreement, Roskos said, there is a protocol to follow that over time has become streamlined with unions.
“No system is perfect, there will always be hangups so to speak, but you take a position and the other side does the same, and that’s why we have a grievance process in place to address those types of issues,” he said.
According to Hruby the staff members of District 90 go above and beyond to meet the needs of students.
“They are truly in a service profession, as they serve the families and community every day. At the end of the summer I spoke to one of our teachers who shared that she was in her classroom until 1 a.m., and when she went home she couldn’t sleep because she was so excited to get the year started. That is dedication and service,” Hruby said.
Following the same fiscal year as a school year, collective bargaining goes on anywhere from winter to early spring, which Roskos said he tries to come to a resolution by the time teacher contracts expire July 1.
“I still have one contract that I’m bargaining currently. So, a lot of my time is spent working on that, involving coming up with proposals and then, of course, meeting with the school district staff and administration, as well as the board of education,” Roskos said.
Contracts for stipulations of collective bargaining agreements depend on who is in the unit, for instance District 90 has two unions. A teacher’s union, which covers all employees who are certified or licensed (terminology was recently altered) to teach, to be a school nurse or to be a social worker, and all other positions requiring a certification or license. The second union represents all support staff like secretaries, custodians or cafeteria workers.
“So District 90 has two unions with two contracts, and depending on how the recognition clause reads, and we bargain things like terms and conditions of employment, wages, hours and all of those things within the contract, and that’s the collective bargaining contract that governs the relationship between the employer and the union worker,” Roskos said.
Hruby said the relationship between the two unions and the administration/board “is a very collegial one in District 90.”
When the process doesn’t flow as smoothly as it’s anticipated to, Roskos said there is a very lengthy process involved defined in the law.
If an agreement can’t be made through bargaining then the union will ask for mediation and through a mediator if both parties come to impasse, then the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board (IELRB) has a process where both sides have to post its offers publicly, and then there are so many days of a waiting period and before a strike can occur.
“But all of these things have a time line, so it’s not like you meet one time, we don’t agree, then we go on strike — it’s a very lengthy process consisting of meetings and negotiations — and a strike is a last resort, nobody wants a strike,” Roskos said.
This year a District 203 support staff contract was bargained and settled in one meeting, he said.
“It was about three hours long, but was very amicable one where we exchanged some proposals, and in one sitting we figured it all out,” Roskos said.
Statewide there are very few strikes, according to Roskos.
Two years ago Highland teachers went on strike, and last year there was one in East St. Louis.
In the trenches
Heavily immersed in the educational trenches for nearly 20 years, veteran OTHS history teacher Mike Day quarterbacks not only his full-time teaching schedule, OTHS assistant football coach, president of the IFT union for District 303, vice president of the Southwest Area Council (a regional body of the IFT), a husband and a father to his three girls.
So, when does he have free-time? Well, he doesn’t get much, but Day said he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It’s hectic and busy at times, but it all becomes worthwhile if you get a student who connects, and I think it’s the same with the union. It may be long hours and hard work, but there’s always a reward personally, professionally and academically,” Day said.
After taking his students for a peek into the past with his history curriculum, Day said he is needed on the field with the Panther football team, then he responds to union business, if he wasn’t able to earlier in the day — then it’s off to the homestead to be with his family.
“As a philosophy I try to get back to them as soon as possible because I know if they’re calling me then it is important, and I treat them all equally,” Day said.
Day’s wife is also a teacher, so she is very understanding of his position within the union and various executive boards, he said.
“And a lot of times she has to bare the brunt of raising our kids, but she is empathetic and knows first hand just how imperative it is to ensure equality, fair treatment and safety and security within the work place for teachers and other educational staff,” Day said.
As District 203 Union President Day of nine years, he said he strives to lay the union workers he represents’ fears to rest and/or address their fears head on.
“It’s rewarding trying to help someone,” Day said.
Terms are two years in length, and Day was just elected for another term, he said.
Day has been working with District 203 in some capacity in the union for at least 16 years.
“As an senior member on the staff, obviously has caused my role increase, and I also serve on the executive board as well, and work to coordinate efforts in the region with the Southwest Area Council as vice president of educational issues, so I keep abreast to anything new up and coming policies and curriculum and such,” Day said.
“And I’m always reading things and trying to see what the impact is and how things can be implemented,” Day said.
One challenge Day has been faced with is the limited number of educational training and professional development for teachers and support staff due to the lack of available providers.
“So if a university is hosting a one-day math conference for teacher, hat was a problem to get people there to get the professional development they want and need to perform better in their role,” Day said.
So, Day said he was involved in developing some proposals because the venues for these types of training or enrichment was so limited because the schools, also known as the employer, wouldn’t grant them the time or leeway to go to these things, or provide reimbursement for costs incurred due to their employment contracts.
“So we wrote some things up so teachers and others would have more resources and avenues available to them to explore in order to help them grow professionally, which then in turn affects the students they teach or interact with,” Day said.
If you thought Day couldn’t possibly have more hats to wear, you thought wrong. He is also vice president of the IFT Executive Board, which is a representative position within that state governing body. The term is for three years.
“Unfortunately, people see unions as being concerned solely with contract issues or wage raises or budget cuts, but at its core the union is doing what it has always set out to do — trying to work to make this a better place for the community that we serve,” Day said.
Working closely with Roskos and Dr. Darcy Benway, O’Fallon School District 203 superintendent, comes with ease, Day said.
“I have every confidence in (Benway’s) ability and we will float ideas back and forth until we figure something out that works,” Day said.
Like Roskos and Hruby, Day also said the relationship between the unions, workers and the administration is not as antagonistic as some may think.
“Ultimately trades, factory work or, in this case educational arena, union heads see themselves as partners with leadership to better serve our students and offer an environment that will allow for more fluid communication,” Day said.
Working with teachers and other staff all the time, Day said, “a lot of times we just sit casually and talk to work things out or clarify terms of his or her contracts. We are very proactive and try to catch things early on before it could become problematic — we all work great together as a team, really,” Day said.
“We’ve never had a strike at OTHS, and because on our end and the administrative side we step away and one side or the other will come up with a creative solutions to cultivate understanding and growth for the folks who work here, the students and the community as a whole,” Day said.
‘It’s not just a day off’
Reflecting on the upcoming holiday of Labor Day that has been celebrated since the late 1880s, Day said, “It’s not just a day off, it’s much more.”
“It’s a day to sit and think about the advantages of making a better work environment and people are involved because they are willing to take that extra time, even if it means sacrificing the ability to run an errand, or have some ‘me time,’ or see his or her child or children 30 minutes earlier because they know it’s in their best interest to make their work environment better and allow for the freedoms and allowances that come along with it,” Day said.
Day said labor unions have been fighting for real issues in social justice since their inception in the nineteenth century.
“Gender equality is one issue that comes to mind,” Day said. “The unions fought for ‘her’ rights in the workplace so women aren’t punished for taking maternity leave. It’s a matter of pursuing diversity because everyone’s situations and concerns are different and require consideration, not to be swept under the rug.”
Looking at the past, unions had different groups based on trade and industry.
“But they learned early on to work together for the betterment of the worker and their working conditions and environments,” Day said.
“In the 1950s and 1960s the unions were fighting right alongside the civil rights movement to try and improve it all,” he said.
According to Day, people often say today that education is going to be the key modern civil rights issue making sure that people have access to good classrooms and public schools to reach their full potential.
“I mean years ago when there were issues with special education class sizes, the unions worked hard and now there is a mandated level of how many students can be in a special education class size, so that each child is getting the attention and specialized instruction they deserve so they aren’t at a disadvantage compared to students who don’t have a disability,” Day said.
This year’s Labor Day parade is at the Veteran’s Memorial fountain located on the Square in downtown Belleville beginning at 10 a.m. Monday, Sept. 5, and will include O’Fallon School District 90 and 203 teachers and staff, Roskos said.