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Midwestern Intermediate Unit IV union authorizes strike

More than 100 educators providing programs and services to county schools authorized a strike this week after more than a year of contract negotiations.

Midwestern Intermediate Unit IV’s Education Association’s 120 members provide specialty support programs to the Butler Area, Karns City Area, Slippery Rock Area, Mars Area, Knoch, Moniteau and Seneca Valley school districts.

Some of the issues both sides disagree on are wages and retirement packages.

At an MIU IV board meeting Wednesday, Steven Sheirer — vice president and chief negotiator for the union — informed board members that the association had passed strike authorization “with an overwhelming majority.”

“We, as a collective bargaining unit, would like to continue to work with the board and administration to find an acceptable, but prompt, solution,” Sheirer said, “to avoid any further impact on the students and staff.”

A statement released by the union Thursday said the educators have been without a contract since July 1.

“These are the folks that are working with students that have a lot of needs,” said Patrick Androkovich, a Pennsylvania State Education Association UniServe representative. “Whether it’s visually impaired, auditory issues, chewing and swallowing — the kids who need a little extra, one-on-one support.”

While the group has not chosen a date to strike, Androkovich said the authorization sent “a message to the board: ‘Let’s work together and get this resolved.’”

More than a year of negotiations

According to Androkovich, negotiations began in the fall of 2021.

“Talks started back that far, and we just haven’t been able to reach a settlement,” he said. “We thought we had one back in May, but that kind of fell apart right before both sides were going to vote on it.”

What followed was a fact-finding mediation where both MIU IV and the Education Association presented their concerns to a third party.

“Then the third party that’s assigned by the state, the Bureau of Mediation, listens to both sides, issues a report and then both sides vote on that,” Androkovich said.

During the first of two mandatory votes, Androkovich said, the Education Association voted for the revisions, and the board voted against them. Both sides then voted against it in the second vote.

This left the groups with “multiple tentative agreements,” Androkovich said, but some division on wages and language in the contract.

“And then a retirement package that was in the current (collective bargaining agreement), but we were looking to have something in the new one and MIU IV is looking to eliminate that,” he said. “That’s a big change for our folks.”

However, Androkovich said, the fact-finding mediation had helped “split the difference” on the groups’ wage negotiations.

So, when negotiations resumed last week, he said they assumed the groups’ tentative agreements were “still in place.”

“Unfortunately, when we sat down, (Bill) Halle, who’s their chief negotiator, informed us that was not the case,” Androkovich said, “and that they wanted to go back to square one.”

‘Back to square one’

According to Halle, who represents the Butler Area School District on the board, the administration believed both groups had reached a “tentative agreement” weeks before the contract’s June 30 end date.

He said they then were informed by Androkovich “that their negotiating committee decided not to accept the tentative agreement and to not take the details of the tentative agreement to their members for a vote.”

From there, according to Halle, Androkovich filed for the fact-finding hearing where both groups ultimately rejected the mediator’s report.

“Due to the fact that the Education Association chose to walk away from a tentative agreement and then voted to reject the fact-finding report in which issues previously thought to be agreed to were raised as being in conflict, there are no items in agreement,” Halle said, “leaving no other place to start negotiating other than from the beginning.”

The Education Association’s statement called the decision “objectionable” and added that Halle was unavailable to meet with the group until early May.

Halle said he had provided “multiple earlier meeting dates,” but was informed that the association had rejected them.

He said the association’s strike authorization was shocking and disappointing.

“The MIU IV is very concerned about the possible negative impact on the special-needs students and districts served by the MIU IV,” Halle said, “and stands unified in our effort to reach an agreement.”

Getting back to the table

Androkovich agreed.

“Obviously, we don’t want to go out on strike,” he said. “We don’t want to go on strike, but it’s a real possibility if things don’t change in the near future, and we need to get something done.”

According to Androkovich, the Education Association has been mindful of the effect negotiations as a whole, let alone a strike, could have on students after two years of frequent educational disruptions during the pandemic.

“That’s why they’ve waited this long to even have the discussion,” he said, “because they don’t want to have any kind of interruption of learning or providing the services that these kids need.”

Androkovich said he felt the groups were close to reaching an agreement, only a few issues remained to discuss.

“We need to get this done, and we need to get back to the table, and we need to keep all the things we agreed on and not renege on any of the agreements we had and just iron out these last few issues,” he said. “We’re more than willing to do that, and we just need them to get on board with us.”

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