Local cafeteria workers present education board with petition (VIDEO)

A group of nearly 40 cafeteria workers said they will not give up on their efforts to have paid-time-off reinstated as a part of their contracts with the district’s new food service provider.

Unite Here Local 217’s latest effort consisted of appearing at the city’s Board of Education headquarters where they assembled peacefully to sing a song as people entered the building for the 7 p.m. meeting on Wednesday, Nov. 15 before appearing before the board during the meeting.

The group of cafeteria workers modified lyrics of a civil rights era song entitled, “We shall not be moved,” which was originally performed by the Seekers. Shelton cafeteria worker for the last 18 years Barbara Jelacic said the lyrics of the song accurately reflect the group’s determination to protect their jobs.

“We shall not, we shall not be moved

Fighting for our families, we shall not be moved

Fighting for our healthcare, we shall not be moved

Just like a tree that's standing by the water,

We shall not be moved”

During the meeting’s public portion, mother of three students that have been through the Shelton School system, Jelacic shared her story and hope that the city’s Board of Ed will help the group in these ongoing negotiations with Whitson’s Culinary Group.

“My 40 coworkers and I have dedicated our lives to serving the children that make up the Shelton schools. Prior to this year we felt that our work in the cafeteria was an extension of the work done by the Board of Education, unfortunately now we feel as though the BoE has tossed us to the curb,” Jelacic said to the board. “Serving lunch in this town is not a for profit business, it is a service provided by the women here tonight. We implore the Board of Education to use your power to demand that Whitson’s protect Shelton families. My coworkers and I will not give up.”

At the end of her prepared statement, the Shelton resident of 30 years, Jelacic presented the board with a petition signed by 540 Shelton residents showing their support for the cafeteria workers.

When asked if there had been any changes on the Board of Ed’s stance in this debacle contract negotiation process and Chairman Mark Holden continued to express what he has since the issue arose shortly after Whitson’s agreed to hire the 40 plus cafeteria workers.

“Frankly it’s a little bizarre to me that they keep coming to the Board of Ed for help,” said Holden as he explained that the contract negotiations are to be done between the workers and Whitson’s. “In order for us to re-enter that negotiation process we would end up having to lay off one or two teachers.”

Holden said despite appreciating all of the work done by the cafeteria workers, laying off teachers to help them to maintain their benefits is unrealistic.

In a Letter to the Editor published by the Herald the previous week, Holden said, “The Board encouraged Whitsons to hire the existing Sodexo cafeteria workers because we felt they were good people who do a good job.  We also encouraged Whitsons to make sure a medical insurance program was available to them.  They did as we asked… To make any changes to the existing contract between Whitsons and the Board would require the State to agree to the change since the contract concerns the Federal school lunch program.  Even if we could get such a change to be made, it would greatly increase the costs of the contract.

Medical insurance costs have been going up for our own employees too.

Board of Ed member and Chair of the city’s Democratic Town Committee, David Gioiello, said his political party invited the workers to make a presentation at one of its meetings last month where they unanimously voted to support Local 217 in their negotiation process with Whitson’s.

The DTC exhibited their support by passing the following proclamation:

“Whereas, it is the goal of the Democratic Party that all American workers be paid a fair, living wage upon which they can support their families; and

Whereas, it is the goal of the Democratic Party that all Americans have access to quality, affordable health care; and

Whereas, the workers of UNITE HERE Local 217 are seeking a fair, living wage and access to quality affordable health care for its members in its negotiations with Whitson’s New England, Inc.; and

Therefore, be it resolved that the Shelton Democratic Town Committee supports the membership of UNITE HERE Local 217 in its negotiations with Whitson’s New England, Inc. and calls upon the parties to engage in good faith negotiations with the goal of paying fair wages and benefits to the workers of UNITE HERE Local 217.”

Unite Here Local 217 representative Cristina Cruz Uribe said the group has made “small progress” with Whitson’s, and the negotiation process is ongoing.

“What we’re doing is working and what we need to do is amp up the pressure,” said Cruz-Uribe who described the group’s efforts as a “high road campaign. “The company is starting to see that it may be able to offer affordable health insurance, however they have not taken the necessary steps to make it affordable to workers.”

Jelacic said the amount of signatures they collected from people in the community shows the positivity behind their efforts.

“Really we’re pulling the community together,” said Jelacic.

Jelacic added that the group received help from teachers and custodians inside of the local schools, despite of rumored efforts to intimidate workers from signing.

“Some principals were telling people they could not sign the petition,” said Jelacic. “The support means that they’re willing to stand up with us.”