Parent Trap

Teaching at the agency is the first or best job many participants have ever held, and it's one of the reasons why Head Start works so well. But at PICA, staffers allege, parents' inexperience is used against them.

THE NATIONAL LABOR Relations Board (NLRB) today is scheduled to begin hearings into charges of unfair labor practices at Parents in Community Action, Inc., (PICA), the Minneapolis nonprofit that runs Hennepin County's Head Start program. According to the complaint, the agency may have used unfair tactics to prevent its workers--many of them parents of children enrolled in the program--from joining a union. The complaint, based on charges filed by an employee and by the union the employees attempted to join, alleges the retaliatory firing of two teachers and the transfer of a third for their organizing activities, among other anti-union tactics.

When approached for her side of the story, PICA Executive Director Alyce Dillon offered a written synopsis of the agency's view of the labor conflict. She charges that the Minnesota Federation of Teachers (MFT) is threatened by Head Start's successful track record in training teachers and working with parents. As proof that there's a political agenda at work, she claims that MFT has contacted politicians and attempted to cut the agency's funding.

PICA employs roughly 250 people at its seven sites, and receives millions of dollars in funding from county, state, and federal government. Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton sits on its board of directors. The agency's stated mission is "to support and empower Head Start parents through its programs and services." After undergoing training, parents can become assistant teachers earning around $10 an hour. It's the first or best job many participants have ever held, and it's widely believed that this parental involvement is one of the reasons why Head Start works so well. But at PICA, former staffers allege, parents' inexperience is used against them by the administration.

"They make you feel indebted to them. Many staff are still receiving public assistance, whether it's food stamps or medical, and so you're often dealing with their lack of self-esteem," explains one assistant teacher who asked that her name not be used. "I came to work there as a parent and on public assistance myself, and management always seemed to tell us that it could be taken away at any time. That's almost like a motto that they have."

"In training, PICA singles people out to testify how horrible their lives were before they got the job," adds Jan Radder, a former teacher. "This does two things: It instills a fear that, if they piss off the administration, they will lose their jobs. And if they do anything to assert their rights, they are biting the hand that feeds them."

Radder, one of the employees who initiated the organizing drive last November, says when the employees first began talking with the MFT, their meetings were well attended. But in December, Dillon issued a memo warning that as a result of the union campaign, some employees might lose their jobs, Radder claims. Next, administrators reportedly scheduled a mandatory staff meeting at the same time a union meeting was being held, and handed out raises--some up to 50 percent. Union organizers got the smallest raises, says Radder, some less than $1 an hour. By law, employers can't change wage structures or hand out mass raises during organizing campaigns. Nonetheless, in January, PICA apparently introduced a new merit pay system hinging on a yearly review that, among other tests, would include a quiz on PICA's history. The MFT, Dillon asserts, opposes the implementation of testing because of the number of public-school teachers whose failings it will reveal. Competency-based training has been in effect at PICA since 1975, she says.

Meanwhile, PICA also reportedly instituted an employee-classification system designating all those hired after January 1, 1994, as probationary trainees. According to the complaint, during the following months an assistant teacher was fired and a records clerk was transferred. When Radder himself was fired in March, the union filed charges with the NLRB. The federal agency found enough evidence to warrant this week's hearings. Ultimately, PICA could be ordered to rehire the fired employees and pay restitution, among other actions.

The case is likely to be tied up in court for some time. Meanwhile, some teachers have vowed to continue organizing. "I really like the Head Start program," says one. "I believe in it and have seen it work firsthand. My daughter is living testimony of how much it helps children. But with the way PICA runs it--if I was a parent today, I wouldn't be there."

 
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