Butler County social workers who haven’t had a pay increase in four years have voted overwhelmingly to strike over a contract dispute involving raises.
Union President Becky Palmer said 94 percent of the county’s Children Services social workers who cast ballots favored going on strike, after the second round of voting on Monday. She said 90 workers voted yes, 14 voted no and the rest of the 127 union members who were eligible to vote, didn’t. She said she will be sending the required 10-day notice to the county commissioners later this week.
About half of the workers voted on Friday — while standing on the sidewalk outside their building because management banned an indoor vote — and 91 percent favored a strike. A second vote on Monday secured a picket line, if the two sides can’t reach an agreement in the interim.
Palmer said she was pleased with the support the union members showed for each other and the children and families they serve. There has been a revolving door at the embattled agency that impacts service to families, and pay is part of the reason, union officials have said. Other unions have also stepped up to support her bargaining unit, Palmer said.
“We’re getting lots of phone calls and lots of support,” she said. “One of the other unions contacted me and said we so appreciate you guys for doing this, because you’re standing up for all of us in Butler County… They said we’re starting a collection, and we’re going to contact everyone out there, so they know we support you. It’s really neat.”
Palmer said she insisted the workers be committed to their vote and walk the picket line if they voted yes. The people who voted no can still work during the potential strike, but striking workers will not receive their salary or benefits. She said she knows why some chose to vote against striking.
“I know pretty much who those people are, and either they’re new, or they support the strike, they just feel they can’t do it…,” Palmer said. “There are people on probation; they’re at risk because they (management) could make up a reason to fire them. They are at-will while they’re on probation.”
Commissioner Cindy Carpenter, who has made the agency one of her top priorities, said she wasn’t surprised by the high percentage of “yes” votes, given the tallies from Friday. Carpenter has been on medical leave but said they have a team in place that has been discussing how to handle the potential strike.
“The agency and the management, they were working on back-up plans,” she said. “As far as where it goes and where it’s at, I’m not in the mix as much as I would want to be, but I hope to be by phone.”
Administrator Charlie Young said they are working on details of a “strike plan,” and those could involve pulling people from other departments as well. There are 127 jobs that need to be done during a strike, but not just anyone can do the duties of a social worker. They are required to go through months of training before they are allowed to remove children from homes and deal with families. Supervisors presumably have training, but Young agreed there aren’t that many of them.
“What we’re looking at is all the functions we perform. We’re recognizing which ones require the certifications, who we have available to do that. Which ones don’t require certification, who we have available to do those functions? Are there activities that are critical that need to be done immediately, certainly anything related to safety? Are there some that could be deferred for a period of time? We’re kind of just walking through everything that we do and making sure we have adequate resources to function.”
Human Resources Director Gary Sheets said he can’t remember any other government worker strikes in Butler County and he has lived her since before public employee unions were recognized.
“Not that I can recall,” he said. “I’ve been here since ‘97 and lived around here since ‘81, but there has only been public employee collective bargaining since the late 1980s.”
Montgomery County and its children services union avoided an actual strike — the workers filed the 10-day notice — earlier this summer by bringing in a federal mediator, according to Chauncey Mason, executive director of the Professional Guild of Ohio. He said they had 10 issues to settle, one of them being wages.
Prior to the strike vote, Chris Schultz, executive director of Parachute: Special Advocates for Children of Butler County, the court appointed special advocates agency that works very closely with the social workers, said she was very worried for the children and families of Butler County if the union workers voted to strike.
“I really believe that Children Services, that they deserve a fair wage and they deserve a supportive work environment, and also that they really deserve to not be overloaded with children’s cases,” she said. “But I’m really worried about the safety of the community’s children and families because they’re really the front-line protection.”
The union and the county were scheduled to hold two bargaining sessions, on June 30 and Monday; the meetings were abruptly cancelled by the county.
“It is my opinion that the nature of our last session and the public comments about negotiations that have been made recently have created an environment that is not conducive to successfully reaching an agreement,” Assistant Human Resources Director Jim Davis wrote in a letter to the union. “I intend to reschedule a session mid-August in what I hope is a more positive climate for reaching a settlement. At that time, I will respond to your last counter proposal.”
That prompted the strike votes. The union and the county have been negotiating a new three-year deal for 14 months. The divide was so great, they went to fact-finding earlier this year. The fact-finder found the social workers deserved a percentage increase, rather than the lump sum pay bumps other unions have received, because they are underpaid compared to the market. The commissioners rejected the recommendation.
Young said the no new negotiations had been scheduled yet.
“Our plan is to continue to protect the children of Butler County,” Young said. “To the best of our ability, we’ll do that by bringing whatever resources we can to bear on the situation.”
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