Grosse Ile office clerical unit rebuilds, takes charge

A photo of Jimalatice Thomas‑Gilbert, Wendy Robledo‑Castillo, Nicole Litteral, Linda Cobb, Suzi Sanchez‑Honkala, Christina Cobb, Kelly Chessor, all smiling
Taking notes after the first bargaining session, (left to right) MEA’s Jimalatice Thomas‑Gilbert, Wendy Robledo‑Castillo, Nicole Litteral, Linda Cobb, Suzi Sanchez‑Honkala, Christina Cobb, Kelly Chessor.

Just two years ago, the MEA unit representing 11 office clerical workers in Grosse Ile Township Schools consisted of one member. The group was working without a contract, and the unit faced decertification for low membership numbers.

In the winter of 2021, that one member recruited two others and the trio did their best to assist MEA UniServ Director Jimalatice Thomas-Gilbert in negotiating a new contract.

But as they rounded the corner toward last summer, when that 18-month agreement was set to expire, the group needed to build strength they could exert at the bargaining table. In that turning point, the administrative assistants came together and never looked back.

“Once they understood that being members and being active they could create their own power to address problems, there was no stopping them,” Thomas-Gilbert said.

With help from Thomas-Gilbert and an MEA organizer, they rebuilt the unit and then set out to negotiate a contract – together as a group – that addressed their needs and their value.

“I really think we surprised the administration when we went in there,” said Suzi Sanchez-Honkala, middle school secretary and president of the Grosse Ile Education Support Personnel Association. “I don’t think they were anticipating the force that we are.”

The positive changes grew out of loss.

In the fall of 2021, Sanchez-Honkala became the only member in good standing of the Grosse Ile ESPA after the jobs of bus drivers – who previously made up nearly all of the membership – were privatized. She became president by default and convinced a friend and another member to join.

This year the administrative assistants all got together to discuss their future with Thomas-Gilbert and Mark Hoffman, MEA UniServ Organizational Development Specialist.

“For our people, a lot of the issue with joining the union was the cost of being a member,” Sanchez-Honkala said. “And Mark explained why it’s actually minimal when you realize that not having a union has costs and those come out of your pocket. I think we had three more people sign up that day.”

More meetings flushed out job issues many were experiencing and talk of remedies.

Soon the fledgling unit had eight members in good standing and a hefty homework assignment for their first bargain. The eight members researched and printed a stack of model contracts from comparable districts, then spent evenings poring over them and listing priorities in a joint Google form.

Newly elected leaders – president, vice president, secretary – sifted through the group’s ideas to create their ideal contract with fine-tuning by Thomas-Gilbert. “We turned that in, and asked for that!” Sanchez-Honkala said. “But then we fought for what was fair.”

Talks began in the spring with all eight members in attendance – in what’s called “open bargaining.” After leaving the first session, they laid documents on the trunk of Sanchez-Honkala’s car and made notes while events were fresh in their minds. It was remarkable, Thomas-Gilbert said.

“I’ve never seen a group come together so quickly and get it so quickly and dive in so quickly. First, Mark and I were kind of leading them, and then it turned into them leading us in a matter of months.”

Once they recognized issues they had in common and understood their rights and powers as union members, Hoffman added, “That’s all it took for a bunch of go-getters like these people.”

Talks continued for months with the unit seeking a wage increase plus compensation for extra duties. Members created a day-in-the-life document to show how much they do – administering medications, finding substitute teachers, supervising students – which adds to their workload.

At first the two sides were far apart on financial proposals, but the office clerical staff – who monitor spending and budgets for their buildings – challenged the administration’s stance. “We did our homework, and we knew what we deserved,” Sanchez-Honkala said.

Building secretaries act as office managers, responding to students, parents and other visitors; juggling staff needs; reminding principals of major deadlines; and balancing budgets – among many other duties.

In a final settlement approved in August, the unit secured a 5% pay increase in year one of a two-year deal, plus $1,250 in off-schedule payments. One paid holiday was added, and some members clinched unpaid time off they desired instead of being required to work or use paid time off during quieter summer or holiday weeks.

Just as important to members were agreed-upon changes to fix troublesome work conditions.

First, the members wanted language to ensure two certified people are present when medication is administered to students – as their training and certification require – to prevent mistakes and protect individuals from liability.

They sought extra compensation for times they supervise students who are sent from class and wait to be seen or those who sit in the office after school until late rides arrive – which makes them privy to sensitive business or prevents work from getting done, Sanchez-Honkala said.

“Bargaining made it easy to come right out and say, ‘We want $2,500 for handling these situations, because it happens more often than you know.’ It brought to light what we deal with and what we’re lacking in our jobs.”

They pursued stipends for their work to find substitute teachers, conducted before contractual hours on personal cell phones, entering absence information for teachers and texting subs for availability.

“Here it is 6 a.m., and I’m trying to do my hair, get dressed, brush my teeth – and I’m trying to get my 10-year-old ready for school – and now I’m having to log on and put in the absence and try to find a substitute who can be in the building in 45 minutes.”

The group did not get extra pay or stipends, but they forged agreements to ensure two certified people will administer medications, administrators will limit students waiting in the office to a time maximum, and a new policy will address parents who are chronically late picking up students.

A new work group will write those changes into board policies for adoption. In addition, the unit won agreement for principals to handle early-morning absence inputs, with additional paid days off to be used at individuals’ discretion to compensate for other after-hours work.

Sanchez-Honkala, a lifelong resident of Grosse Ile who worked for 15 years in corporate Human Resources before starting at the school six years ago, said it’s been empowering to watch the union team grow, learn, build confidence, make decisions, and stand up this year.

“We all brought different strengths to the process and worked together as a team. The whole team deserves recognition for that. None of us could have done this alone – and it’s an amazing feeling to know how hard we worked to rewrite our contract to what we wanted it to say.

“We’re family now,” she concluded. “This team is my family, and now I know we’ll always do right by each other.”

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