Supporters of higher wages and better working conditions for the Lawrence school district’s classified staff members demonstrated in solidarity Monday afternoon.
Families, firefighters, teachers and graduate teaching assistants from the University of Kansas joined the rally’s hosts — members of Personnel Association of Lawrence – Communications Workers of America (PAL-CWA). The union organized in front of the district’s headquarters, 110 McDonald Drive, just before its bargaining session with the school district.
Supporters — many wearing union red — raised signs and chanted.
Andrew Kustodowicz, president of Graduate Teaching Assistants Coalition at KU, attended the rally with Katie Hinders, GTAC grievance chair. They’re participating in their own contract negotiations and wanted to show up in solidarity.
“I know how stressful negotiations can be. I’ve been on a team for the past two years. We had a rally before one of our negotiation sessions, and it’s just so encouraging to see people show up and give you that boost before you go into the meeting,” Hinders said.
Tom Gallagher, a member of the PAL-CWA bargaining team and a custodian at Schwegler Elementary School, said the union’s top goal remains higher wages.
“We’ve got some other things we’re pushing or trying to get in the contract, but mostly right now, it’s just the wages,” Gallagher said. “We’ve got people actually having to choose between getting medicine and food or paying rent, and now they’re having to make choices that they shouldn’t have to. This is a public school entity. They need to step up and give us a living wage.”
During the bargaining session, union members learned their request for an hourly living wage was still being considered by school board members.
David Cunningham, attorney for the Kansas Association of School Boards, said the board did not have a counter proposal to offer but it would meet in executive session to discuss negotiations at its meeting Monday, May 23.
Board member Kelly Jones said she wanted to reiterate that board members were committed to a compensation increase for PAL-CWA and Lawrence Education Association, the teacher’s union. Jones said the district had calculated the union’s proposal at a cost of $11.7 million.
“Based on the cost of your proposal, if it truly is $11 to $12 million, we can’t commit to that this year. So we will be back the next time we meet with a specific proposal, based on the numbers that we have available to us that wouldn’t include additional cuts to the budget this year.”
Hannah Allison-Natale told Jones union members appreciated and understood the significance of the cost to the district, but there’s also a high cost to the union’s members who have dependents, can’t afford health insurance and work multiple jobs because their district job’s hourly wage is low.
“I know you all have heard this before. That’s where we’re coming from, is the health and safety and wellness and betterment of our classified staff, ultimately to be able to serve our students as best we can,” Allison-Natale said.
Jones replied that PAL-CWA should keep bringing its requests to the negotiations table.
“I would really want your members to hear that I don’t think the ask is out of line for what is right and just in the world. We are dealing with the current constraints that we have. My ability or the board’s ability to do what is right and just is very much hampered by what are the available funds, but I want you to know that I totally agree that you should keep telling us why you’re doing it and what your objectives are.”
PAL-CWA has been negotiating a living hourly wage for all classified staff since the board formally recognized the union last June. Allison-Natale said the district employs 400 custodians, food service workers, paraeducators, support staff and more who make less than $15 an hour. About 300 employees, they said, earn between $11 and $13 an hour.
Negotiations Monday also included discussions about twice-daily 10-minute breaks and pay for up to four days of inclement weather. Because the school calendar already includes anticipated inclement weather days, union leaders said a guarantee that staff would receive pay on snow days wouldn’t cost the district any more money but would improve morale.
The next bargaining session between the district and PAL-CWA is scheduled for Wednesday, June 1.