Virgin Islands sports coach wildcat gets results

School sports coaches in St Thomas, in the US Virgin Islands in the Caribbean have ended their four month long wildcat strike.

Submitted by Steven. on January 27, 2006

Fighting the local government and the teachers' union, the coaches have won large concessions, including huge boosts to sports funding, and repairs to decaying facilities for the pupils.

Virgin Island news reported:
State school coaches in the St. Thomas-St. John District continue to wait for a raise, but as of today that won't be all they are doing.

For the first time this school year, they will be coaching, too.

The coaches, on strike since Sept. 19, voted Wednesday to return to their teams and end a 128-day boycott of interscholastic sports. Today coaches will return to their normal duties - including preparations for a basketball season that normally would be in full swing by now.

The decision to end the strike likely saves the girls basketball season, which has been on hold because the league did not have enough teams without participation from the public schools.

The strike produced sports chaos during the fall sports season: Volleyball was briefly delayed, tackle football had a patchwork season and cross-country running never materialised. Without coaches to get them on the field, many senior student-athletes lost the final season of their high school careers.

Some coaches cast their votes in person on Wednesday during a meeting at Charlotte Amalie High School, and others were contacted by phone. Strike organisers became convinced that the consensus opinion was to call off the strike - even with a proposed increase in coaching stipends still mired in negotiations.

"I don't really have a problem going back without a conclusion to the stipend issue," CAHS basketball coach Pedrito Estrill said. "My concern really was the overall program. I wanted to make things better for the coaching fraternity."

The decision was a major concession by leaders of the strike. The coaches had taken a hard stance on the stipend increase during the last two months, saying they would not return to their sports until talks between the American Federation of Teachers and the V.I. government produced an agreement.

CAHS physical education department chairman Arthur Solomon said the change in position came with the realisation that coaches were no longer battling the government, just the AFT.

"We are fighting with our own union, so we are going to try another tack," Solomon said. "Sometimes the final hurdle is harder than anything else. We've been doing this since September, and to be honest, we have gotten a lot."

Since the boycott began, coaches have seen significant responses to their demands for better funding, improved organisation and support at the district level and upgrades to decaying athletic facilities.

Appropriations totalling $432,000 for interscholastic sports travel and equipment were included in the government's Fiscal Year 2006 budget and subsequent spending bills. The government also appropriated funds for capital improvements, including $250,000 to repair the track and $100,000 to repave the tennis courts at CAHS and $2.5 million to build a new gymnasium for the school.

The government also has assured coaches that it will reinstate the physical education and athletics district coordinator position that was eliminated more than a decade ago.

"We have never received this magnitude of funding for physical education or for athletics overall," Estrill said. "It was a sacrifice, but it was a sacrifice in my opinion that worked very well because of all the things we gained by calling this wildcat strike."

The coaches conducted the strike without the union's approval and initially refused to involve the AFT in any negotiations, charging that union leadership had ignored them during 15 years without a pay hike. Strike organisers eventually conceded that they needed union involvement in order to work out a deal with the government, but coaches continue to question the AFT's effort.

"If they gave a damn, this thing would have been taken care of a long time ago," said Addelita Cancryn Junior High School girls basketball coach Myron Corbett. "It's just a shame."

Gov. Charles Turnbull, after meeting with coaches in October to hear their concerns, wrote a letter to government chief negotiator Karen Andrews that directed her to begin talks with the AFT on increasing the stipends. AFT Local 1825 president Vernelle de Lagarde received a copy of the directive from coaches on Nov. 7, and Andrews received her copy a day later.

Solomon said that negotiations have taken almost three months partly because of Andrews' obligations to other government negotiations. But he also cited several off-island trips by union leaders and the AFT's insistence upon including non-coaching issues in the talks as major reasons why the raises have not yet been finalised.

"They just don't believe in their hearts that they should be negotiating for coaches only," Solomon said. "We are the backbone of this union, and we are being treated like animals. This nonchalant attitude is really amazing to us."

De Lagarde said that coaches were told the union would be including other matters in the negotiations during an informational meeting on Dec. 12. She said the unusual nature of the negotiations - the government is reopening talks despite just having reached an agreement on a new teachers contract in October - presents a rare opportunity.

"We told the coaches when we met that we had to take other things into consideration," de Lagarde said. "This should not be a surprise to them. As leaders we can't just look at one group. If management is willing to come back and meet, then we have to take advantage of the opportunity."

In spite of the continued friction between them, both Solomon and de Lagarde said they expect a deal with the government to be finalized when the union next meets with Andrews on Feb. 2 and 3. Any negotiated stipend increase would supersede a 20 percent raise given to coaches in the newly ratified teachers contract.

Solomon said he felt comfortable ending the strike without a deal in hand after receiving Turnbull's personal assurance that the government will continue to deal in good faith. The governor's word and the movement on other issues were enough to offset any anxiety over the stipend negotiations, according to Solomon.

"Things are moving," he said. "And if we have to" strike "again, we'll do it again - with no apologies. Union or no union, we'll do it the same way."