June 17, 2016
By Bill Hohlfeld
Mount Vernon, NY – As the sun began to sink low over Westchester County on Wednesday evening, spirits remained high among the Mount
Vernon School Monitors and their supporters.
They made an impressive presence in front of the Mount Vernon Education Center on Columbus Avenue as they rallied and marched in expectation of having their voices heard by the school board. It is common in our culture to listen to the people we respect.
The Mount Vernon School Monitors number approximately 100 employees; some part-time and some full time. These monitors, who are charged with the safety of the children in the playground, trained in first aid and CPR, and who help to keep things running smoothly in the cafeteria by lending watchful eyes to the comings and goings in the hallways, are crucial to the health and safety of the students and lend much needed support to faculty. They are diverse in nature, and run a wide gamut of age, gender and ethnicity. They are, in many ways, representative of the typical American worker. Unfortunately, today in America, being a typical worker often equates to receiving low wages, minimal benefits and no respect.
These monitors, all members of Local 338 RWDSU/UFCW are in negotiations for their contract, which expires at the end of June. What are they asking for in that contract? “They’re not asking for a lot,” according to their union’s Executive Vice President, Jack Caffey Jr. They’d like a living wage, (their current wage is barely above the legal minimum) some sick days, perhaps a personal day, or maybe even a paid holiday or two. As it stands, they enjoy none of those benefits, despite the fact that the average monitor has been employed anywhere from 10 to 15 years, with a few exceptional cases with over thirty years of service.
Mr. Caffey is quite clear about the mission at hand. “It’s not just about a contract. It’s about dignity and respect for the Mount Vernon School Monitors.” One can understand why these folks do not feel as though they are held in high regard, when the only response they have received to their proposals thus far has been a somewhat curt response of “You’ll have a hard time getting the school board getting to agree …” from the school board’s chief negotiator.
That’s not an adequate response to people like Velma Greene, who has been there well over 30 years now and would like to think she is being treated fairly. She knowingly confides that “monitors in other schools make more money.” She also recollects a time when they did have access to sick time, but it has been so long now she can’t remember when that benefit was rescinded. Nor does it sit right with Debra France, whose broad smile coincides with her statement that she “loves working with the kids.” She’s been on the job eight years and thinks it would be good to have some sick days and holidays.
Diana Brown, a 6 year employee marched the picket line with her son. When asked why this struggle was so important to her, she pointed to him and said “Because this is the future, why I work to pay the bills.” It was a point well taken and well- illustrated. And finally, there was Anthony Blagmon, the most junior employee of those I spoke with. He’d only been with the district a year but had experience in other districts and so could tell the difference. A man who takes his job seriously, he says “the kids need us …teachers can’t be everywhere.” He goes on to talk about the difficulty encountered when a monitor is so sick they have to stay home and forgo a
day’s pay. “Sometimes we watch as many as 3 times as many kids as we should because they [the school board] won’t pay for replacements.
Among the supporters in the crowd were members and representatives from the UFT, NYSUT, UFCW, TWU Local 100, the Yonkers Firefighters and the Westchester/Putnam Central Labor Council. The monitors were bolstered by this show of solidarity. When John Durso, President of Local 338 stepped to the podium and took the microphone, he struck a chord with all present. “This is a fight about the dignity of work,” he declared. “I am sure that [school superintendent] Dr. Hamilton and the teachers all receive dignity and respect on the job, why shouldn’t these “guardian angels” of our children receive the same?”
The evening ended in a metaphor of itself when several of the monitors who are both residents of Mount Vernon and parents of children who attend the schools were not allowed to speak at the meeting due to a “technicality.” From their stoical response, one suspects that being silenced and disrespected by the school board is not a new experience for the school monitors. One also suspects however that the monitors see such treatment as rapidly growing old.