Custodians offer wage concessions at school district

The union representing 330 custodians at Portland Public Schools said at an April 22 press conference that an offer it made to cut wages and benefits to help the district save millions of dollars is falling on deaf ears.

The school district is projecting a $36 million shortfall in its 2002-03 budget. The publicly-elected Portland School Board, which has the final say in how to make up that deficit, is being told it can save $4.5 million a year by contracting the custodial work to a private firm.

School Employees Local 140, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), says the savings figure presented by the school district was "pulled out of a hat." The union met with school officials to present a package of concessions that would cut a substantial portion of the deficit, but it has not received a response to their offer.

Publicly, the school board and administration maintain that they want the bargaining process to work its way through, but Local 140 says there isn't any bargaining taking place.

"It sounds as if unless we come up with the entire $4.5 million they don't want to talk," said Local 140 Secretary-Treasurer Grant Walter.

On April 10 the school district took out an advertisement in the Daily Journal of Commerce soliciting a request for proposals (RFP) for bids on the custodial work, and last week it led representatives of several private contracting firms on a tour of several school buildings. The RFP is limited to qualified rehabilitation facilities because under a little-known state law - called the "Products of Disabled Individuals" law - government agencies must first offer contract work to non-profit organizations that employ disabled people. If a contract can't be negotiated with the school district, then it could be offered to a for-profit company.

At the press conference held outside district headquarters as the school board met inside, Walter said the school district is "fast-tracking" the bid process to the non-profit Portland Habilitation Center. PHC has about 400 employees who are members of sister union SEIU Local 49. The company does contract work at such places as Portland International Airport, Portland State University and Oregon Health & Science University.

Walter was joined by members of area support groups such as Parent-Teacher Associations to demand that the school district bargain in good faith and reconsider contracting with a rehabilitation facility, even if it is unionized.

Jerry Egger, president of the Fair Competition Alliance, said the school district's estimate of a $4.5 million savings is flawed because under the 25-year-old "Products of Disabled" statute it is the Oregon Department of Administrative Services (DAS) and not the school district's purchasing department that will have responsibility for establishing what Portland Public Schools would be paying for the service.

The Fair Competition Alliance was formed in 1998 by business owners seeking fairness in public contracting. "And the Department of Administrative Services' responsibility is not to negotiate the lowest price at the best quality and service standards. It is to establish a fair market price," Egger said. "It is important to note that organizations employing disabled individuals as defined in the statute often have overhead and labor costs not normally found in the private for-profit sector."

Egger said DAS pays a private rehabilitation contractor nearly 300 percent more for processing mail than it could using its own employees and its own in-house equipment.

Michael Geoghegan, a Local 49 field rep assigned to PHC, told the Northwest Labor Press that given the nature of the work, placing a rehabilitation workforce in public schools would not be a good match. "Emergencies come up daily in schools, from a stranger on campus to an overflowed toilet; that puts custodians under a lot of pressure," he said. "I don't think it would be a safe working environment for people with disabilities. It's irresponsible to the kids in the district. I question whether (the administration) is taking into account the best interest of the health and safety of the kids."

Michael Schiewe, president of the Capitol School Parent-Teacher Association, told the Northwest Labor Press that security is their number one issue. "We want our kids safe and secure. Custodians play a big part in that. They know who should and shouldn't be in a building. With contract janitors, no one will know if they're supposed to be there or not."

Two-thirds of Portland School District custodians have over 10 years of service with the district; one-fifth have over 20 years. Wages range between $24,126 to $41,347 a year. The handful of custodians at the top of the pay scale have close to 30 years of service. Walter said over the years the union has never demanded huge raises, but only cost-of-living adjustments.

Walter said wages under the union contract at PHC are $7.20 an hour. If the contract were let to a non-union company, pay likely would be around $6.50 an hour with no benefits.

At the press conference, Maria Damaris Silva, an organizer and business representative for SEIU Local 49, called Portland Habilitation Center an "anti-worker, anti-union company" that constantly battles the union and its workforce. The big pushers behind the fast-track to contract out custodial work are school district human resources director, Steve Goldschmidt, and Interim Superintendent Jim Scherzinger, Walter said.

Scherzinger is no stranger to the Products of Disabled Individuals law as he sits on the board of directors of the Salem-based non-profit Garten Services Inc.

Earlier last month, school board member Marc Abrams told the Executive Board of the Northwest Oregon Labor Council that labor has "a very uphill battle right now" to convince a majority of the school board to oppose contracting out.

Abrams said he opposes contracting out, but that he is only one of seven members of the board. Without naming names, he said three board members are fully committed, one board member is riding the fence, and two others "are persuadable."

The union has filed a lawsuit in Multnomah County Circuit Court claiming the school district would violate state civil service laws by contracting out custodial work. On April 18 the Civil Service Board agreed with the union. The court case was heard April 23 and a ruling is expected by the end of the month.

May 3, 2002 issue

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