Three weeks shy of the anniversary of the landmark vote which brought a union into Martha's Vineyard Community Services, the health and human services agency and 35 of its employees have yet to nail down a first contract.

"The more difficult issues have been left for now. It's going to be arduous," said Rob Doyle, an employe of Island Counseling Center, one of Community Services' five programs, two of which are unionized.

After nearly 20 negotiating sessions, bargaining teams for both agency management and Service Union Employees International, Hospital Workers Local 767 reached tentative agreements on almost half of the issues - from non-discrimination policies to military duty leave - standard to first-contract negotiations.

Negotiations began in late September, just a few months after employees of Island Counseling Center and Visiting Nurse Service granted Local 767 a seat at the negotiation table - ending a contentious and closely watched pre-vote period. While only ICC employees petitioned for the union, the National Labor Relations Board in Boston extended eligibility to VNS employees because of their "professional status," as defined by federal labor laws.

Contract resolution primarily hinges on salaries - an issue that helped fuel the labor dispute last year.

"Wages are certainly the sticking point. It's never an easy issue to get started on," said Jane Cleare, an ICC counselor active in contract negotiations.

Over the last month, both sides presented wage increase proposals - the details of which confirm that the two sides' ideas of fair compensation register on opposite ends of the spectrum. Management offered an annual 2.5 per cent cost of living increase for this year - an adjustment typically given to all agency employees each January - along with a provision to reopen the contract in the fall to specifically discuss wages.

"Our offer of a 2.5 per cent [increase] in 2003 while we iron out other parts of the contract to then reopen in the fall is a fair approach," said Richard Perras, the agency's labor attorney, who is taking the lead in contract negotiations on behalf of management.

But the newly unionized employees countered management's proposal with a much more ambitious salary scale. The union seeks employee-specific increases - ranging from 11 per cent to 75 per cent. The average request is around 30 per cent.

"On one hand, it seems like a pretty ambitious wish-list, but because wages are so low and cost of living is so high, it's appropriate," said Jerry Fishbein, director of Local 767.

Both sides have rejected the other's wage proposal. While management and employees are not technically at an impasse, both sides question how they will bridge the sizable gap in compensation expectations.

"We take very seriously our obligation to our employees and the community. We'll do our level best to come up with a contract. We want the stability of a contract. But it's hard to be optimistic in the face of a union that rejects a two-year contract with a wage reopener," Mr. Perras said. "Demanding 30 per cent in one year is so far removed from any reasonable proposal. It ought to be seen on its face as unreasonable."

Management questions how they could carve out sizable wage increases from a $5.5 million operating budget already threatened by state and federal budget cuts to health and human service agencies across the nation. While ICC employees say they understand the bleak climate for social service providers like MVCS, they believe the agency could better compensate its staff by shifting priorities in the annual budget - specifically funds that have been allocated to the agency's endowment.

"They tell us they don't have the money to make this happen. I think they feel what they are giving us is enough. But I walk out of those negotiating sessions, and I can't believe they want us to work for the amount they are paying us," said Amy Lilavois, an ICC employee.

But day to day, it's business as usual for staff and management.

"Despite ongoing negotiations, our staff have continued to serve their clients to the best of their ability and management have worked together to make sure the welfare of our clients always come first. To the credit of everyone - no one has wavered from that commitment," said Ned Robinson-Lynch, executive director for MVCS.

The period leading up to the union vote last spring revealed a fractured agency - with employees of one of the agency's five programs deeply estranged from community services' management. These days, both sides say, open hostilities have eased, though an undercurrent of uneasiness remains.

"Things continue to be strained but not at the same pitch. Everyone has begun to get accustomed to the transition," said Ms. Dreeben.

"People are relating as professionals. I know that people are working hard, and I'm not seeing signs of difficulty or hostility," said Mr. Robinson-Lynch.

Less than a week before another negotiation session, ICC employees grapple with how to convey the importance of salary increases without jeopardizing the care of their clients or threatening the financial health of the agency.

A strike is not on the table, Ms. Dreeben said.

"To walk out on the agency is to walk out on our clients. It's not something we're discussing," she said.