Adult crossing guards on city streets have become an important part of school and community safety plans. And now a group of Springfield crossing guards would like more recognition. They're forming a union – taking advantage of a recent state law that's made it easier for public workers to seek collective bargaining rights.
[Ambient sound from crosswalk after school]
At 3:35 in the afternoon on any given school day, you can find Crossing Guard Joseph Perry at the corner of Carew and St. James streets, surrounded by a herd of children. One boy greets Perry and asks him about his golf game. The others chat and laugh amongst themselves. Perry asks them where they're going this afternoon.
Perry:"Guys, you going to the store or are you going just across the street?"
Children: "We're going to the store."
Even as traffic comes to a stop, Perry scans the intersection with a furrowed brow for stray speeding cars.
"You guys ready to go?"
[Sound of children walking across the street.]
Perry lives nearby and is familiar with the neighborhood and its daily traffic patterns. He says he doesn't just help the children cross the street safely. He's become a role model for appropriate street behavior.
"The safety of the kids, that's my first priority. And they like to cross down there. And then you see em and you go, oh, god, alright he made it. Oh, god. And so the next day I say was it worth it? Was it worth it to almost get hit? And they tell me, they say, eh. And then all of a sudden, the next thing I know, I've got them all lined up and I'm like, where did this come from?"
There are 125 crossing guards in Springfield. The city employs them 4 hours a day – in the morning and afternoon – when school is in session. And because it's essentially part-time work, they don't receive a salary or benefits such as health insurance.
"We need benefits. We have no paid holidays, paid vacation, when the kids are out of school we don't have jobs."
Mary Abeid-Pratt has been a crossing guard for 9 years. She says she's never seen an increase in her pay, which is 12 dollars an hour.
"We love our jobs and we want to work with the city and we don't want to go against them but we want you know equal opportunity as well. It would help to have benefits, it would help to have a manual, it would help to have a pay raise. I think $17 an hour is a fair amount."
Abeid-Pratt and Perry, along with more than half of the city's crossing guards, have signed cards saying they want to form a union. They sought help from the Service Employees International Union and filed for recognition from the state. Last year, the SEIU helped to organize crossing guards in Somerville, Massachusetts, negotiated a 2% annual raise with the city, and established seniority rights and a process for filing grievances.
Deanne Dworski-Riggs is an organizer with the SEIU.
"We try to keep building even after we've officially filed, to keep talking to people who are still uncertain. We're already getting started getting a team ready for negotiations, preparing our leaders to be able to take part in the negotiations, hearing from the whole group about what our top priorities are while that paperwork is going through."
The Massachusetts Public Employee Collective Bargaining Law allows most public employees at the state, county, and municipal levels the right to form a union with a majority vote. Eve Weinbaum, director of the Labor Relations and Research Center at UMass Amherst, says since that law was passed, Massachusetts has seen steady growth in union formation.
"Since Governor Patrick signed this legislation a few years ago, we're seeing groups like the crossing guards, a couple of groups have organized at UMass, including the post-docs who recently signed cards and requested to be represented by a union. So these are kind of untraditional groups of workers who haven't had union protections in the past."
Weinbaum says it's unlikely the Springfield crossing guards will be able to get health insurance or paid vacation time, but forming a union could allow them to obtain better equipment or uniforms. Right now the crossing guards are awaiting certification from the state Department of Labor, a process that could take several weeks. And back at the intersection of Carew and St. James streets, Joseph Perry says he thinks the proposed dues – 1.6 percent of his income – are reasonable. Mostly, he hopes that forming a union will boost crossing guards' profile in the community and bring them more respect from drivers and city officials.
"Well, right now we don't have a uniform or anything like that where people would automatically identify us as crossing guards. They see us sometimes as just people out there – some of the public, not all of them but some of them – as being disruptive to their getting to work. I'm going to work! You're in my way, why are you there? And then other ones, they see us and they go, oh, you're taking care of the kids."
Springfield City Hall's Director of Labor Relations and human resources William Mahoney says his office is reviewing the petition filed by the crossing guards but declined to comment further.