Periodically, WIA will profile an activist who is helping build your union and make it stronger.
Correctional Specialist 2
Probation & Parole – Brattleboro
When news of Lara Sobel’s murder reached Correctional Service Specialist Mike Arace in Brattleboro, it really hit home. That’s because he and his colleagues working in Probation and Parole (P&P) offices across Vermont often face many of the same potentially dangerous situations as social workers with the Department for Children and Families, especially when conducting home visits. In fact, VSEA P&P Field Staff members feel so strongly about the need to be protected while at work that they are circulating a petition to allow them to carry a firearm, if they choose, and Arace is one of the workers leading the signature gathering effort.
“Since I started with P&P in 2005, the job’s dangers and an employee’s ability to defend him or herself have been a topic of discussion for employees,” explains Arace. “Field staff has an extremely challenging and dangerous job to do. There is an inherent risk each time we meet with an offender. When we are making contact with them in the community and in their homes, we are on ‘their turf’, and they play by their own set of rules. We need the tools to keep ourselves safe.”
Arace reports that the petition is chugging along, gaining enough support now to give him the confidence to say a majority of P&P workers support the initiative and want to take things to the next level, which is to hopefully meet with the Corrections Commissioner and with lawmakers to talk about what’s behind the petition.
“We’ll be asking the Commissioner to review our petition and then use her authority to draft protocol and policy that permits P&P Field Staff to arm ourselves, if we choose,” says Arace. “We also want to meet with key lawmakers to discuss our petition and gain their support. The final step will be to pass legislation that allows trained and certified staff working outside of a secure institution to be armed.”
Arace says he decided to help lead the petition effort because it’s something he believes strongly in and because he got tired of hearing his colleagues complaining about the danger but then not doing anything about it.
“There are plenty of naysayers who tell me that this has been done before and no one listens,” he explains. “But I I attempt to explain to them that this is the first step in an ‘action plan’ and, even though this has been a topic of discussion for years, there has never been any real action. If you want something to change you have to do something about it, not just complain. I am not one to complain and not take action.”
Arace, who is also a VSEA Steward, employs this same philosophy when he encounters a VSEA member who is not happy with the union, or something that happened within the union.
“Most of the time, it’s a lack of knowledge and understanding… some have never even read their contract” he says. “Too many frontline workers don’t know what VSEA is or does, so I tell them to get involved—in any way they can.” He continues, “I remind them that the union is only as strong as its members and that ‘we are the union.’ You do have voice. Your opinion does matter. People will listen to you. You just have to voice your concerns or opinions appropriately and in the right setting. Go to meetings, vote, join a committee, be a Steward, read the WIA, or talk to your local Union Representative.”
Finally, Arace says that in addition to his petition signature gathering, he’s also been closely monitoring the progress of VSEA’s negotiations with the State on a new contract, and he’s not happy with what’s he’s heard and seen.
“The State’s posturing right now is absurd,” he says. “There is a bargaining process for a reason, and there is no reason the State should not want to be at the table right now and try to reach a fair agreement with its employees. VSEA never went to the table with an unreasonable request. This is a typical power struggle, and management is bullying from the very top. It’s my understanding VSEA is—and has always been—willing to negotiate to find common ground that is good for both sides. It appears the State does not see it this way and has the attitude of ‘my way or no way.’ It is an elementary temper tantrum, and I think they should be ashamed. We are the people who make this state work and who follow their directions. I would think that you would want to keep your employees happy and at least be willing to talk to them. That is just good business.”
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