The Hastings Public School food service workers have prepared signs for the picket line as the hourglass on their strike notice runs low.
The food service workers, part of the Service Employees Industrial Union Local 284, have been angling for better wages and benefits since their contract expired last June. The district and the bargaining unit have remained far apart since then, so the employees are bracing to strike on Feb. 7, the day after the “cooling off period” instituted by the strike notice ends.
When workers announced their plans to strike, district Superintendent Robert McDowell said that the district will institute a limited menu and that student pick-ups and drop-offs will be affected if a strike ultimately commences.
While wages are at the heart of the issue, the food service workers are also asking for improvements to be made to their benefits package. The two sides are still in disagreement over family insurance, dental insurance, bereavement and snow days.
Tuesday afternoon 18 of the 35 food service union members created signs in case they walk off the job.
The signs convey the simple, yet crucial importance of their work. They want to feed the kids, but they want to do so while making wages above poverty level.
The signs serve as a stark reminder of who helped keep the students' bellies full during the heat of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Laurie Potthoff, a six-year food service veteran in the high school, said that she and her coworkers showed up every day to prepare meals for the kids during the pandemic, even helping deliver those meals when learning shifted online.
“We were all required to go to work, and we bagged thousands of breakfasts and lunches, and some of us actually ended up on buses to help deliver it,” Potthoff said.
Sara Rapp has worked in the Hastings High School cafeteria for almost four years and is a representative on the union’s bargaining team. She said that the two sides will be meeting again for a mediation session Thursday.
Rapp is excited and anxious at the prospect of a strike, but she and her coworkers are adamant that they want to avoid a strike if possible. Considering where negotiations currently stand, she feels like a strike may be inevitable.
“I would prefer not to go on strike, but we haven’t seen much movement so it wouldn’t surprise me if we did it,” Rapp said.
The district and the food service group have been participating in mediation with the assistance of the Bureau of Mediation Services. McDowell said the last mediation session was Dec 21. A mediation session was previously scheduled for Feb. 22, but the district extended an invitation for a session on Thursday.
“We are extremely disappointed the union has chosen to strike because we were hoping the union was planning to provide a realistic counteroffer at the Feb. 22 mediation,” McDowell said last week. “The district will continue its efforts to negotiate in good faith and remains hopeful that this situation will be resolved with the assistance of Bureau of Mediation Services mediators.”
Rapp said that support for the food service workers has been flowing in from the community, including from the kids they serve.
“A lot of support. Students have been extra kind, they really showed appreciation after the strike filing was announced,” Rapp said. “I would hate to not serve them food, but at the same time, they would hate to keep seeing us make what we make,”
Despite statements from the district, Rapp and Potthoff do not think that the negotiations have been conducted in good faith.
Ultimately, the food service workers want to see more money brought to the table. They believe that the district is capable of doing so after the school board gave Superintendent Robert McDowell a 13.87% raise over the next three years, while the district average was 2% per year.
The message the union has received is that the current offer is the best the district can muster.
Rapp and Potthoff said that they have heard from paraprofessionals, custodians and teachers, all of whom have signed contracts before the School Board approved McDowell’s new contract with the raise..
“If the other bargaining units would’ve held out a little bit longer, and they would’ve seen it, they would not have signed either,” Rapp said.
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