Bargaining at Portland School District drags on

Members of the District Council of Unions (DCU) — an umbrella group of unions that represent construction maintenance, bus and cafeteria workers, and classified employees at Portland Public Schools — are fed up with the district’s handling of contract negotiations.

Union officials have been bargaining for a new contract since late February 2004. The old pact expired June 30, 2004. They say the school district has continually withheld information and proposals — a classic foot-dragging tactic.

“We received our first economic proposal a month-and-a-half ago, on the same day the school district called for mediation,” said Gene Blackburn, a union representative of Teamsters Local 206 and spokesperson for the DCU.

Blackburn said the DCU came to the table with a proposal to roll over previous contract language and bargain only economics, but the school district refused.

DCU officials say the major problem is Gregg Newstrand, labor relations manager for the school district. This is the DCU’s first experience with Newstrand, who is a former official of United Food and Commercial Workers International Union and with former Retail Clerks Local 992 in Salem. He left there in the 1980s for a position at Fred Meyer.

“He’s been on a ‘which’ hunt from the get-go,” said Bob Childers, a union representative for Cement Masons Local 555. “Gregg doesn’t like the word ‘which’ in the contract. Whenever it appears he wants to talk about it.”

“Gregg is of the mind that all our members are overpaid,” said John Kirkpatrick, a union representative of Painters and Allied Trades District Council 5.

The DCU officials believe the school district is stalling negotiations in an attempt to get the various locals to start arguing amongst themselves.

“If that’s their plan, it backfired,” Blackburn said. “We have never been more united.”

“The tactic doesn’t make sense,” Kirkpatrick added. “We understand these are hard times for everybody — both in the public and private sectors. We understand that, and we are willing to work with the district in the belief that we can reach an agreement.”

Organized labor was a key opponent of a November 2004 initiative to repeal a special three-year Multnomah County income tax that helps fund schools.

“And this is the thanks we get?” said Wally Mehrens, executive secretary-treasurer of the Columbia-Pacific Building Trades Council. “I hope the school district doesn’t come around asking for help again any time soon.”

The DCU doesn’t expect the school district to rubber-stamp whatever proposal it presents in return for union support on the income tax measure. But union officials say they would like to be treated with some regard.

Their frustration with the progress of bargaining grew so deep last week that Kirkpatrick and Childers asked for a meeting with recently-hired Superintendent Vicki Phillips.

“She met with us right away, and said she would look into it. We’ll talk with her again in a couple of weeks,” Kirkpatrick said.

The meeting with the superintendent came on the heels of a report delivered to the Portland School Board Jan. 10 by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform recommending “significant improvements to Portland Public Schools central office operations.” [The central administration includes the superintendent’s office, public information, testing, legal, finance, payroll, budgeting, human resources and supervision of instruction.]

The Annenberg report involved more than a year’s work led by a team that included Portland Public Schools employees and members of the community. The report made five recommendations, among them to “address unhealthy relationships and ineffective structures across the central office and with schools.”

In responding to the report, Phillips stated, “The district is building more collaborative and problem-solving relationships with its represented employees and union leaders, and is changing contracts and other past practices that have contributed to divisiveness.”

Kirkpatrick said Newstrand “has done more damage to labor management relations at the school district ... but he’s united the employees like never before.”

As it stands after nearly a year of bargaining, the school district has proposed a cap on health insurance premiums at $694 a month and across-the-board wage cuts of at least 9 percent.

The insurance premium cap is in line with earlier settlements reached by the teachers’ union and other groups outside the DCU bargaining unit, but the wage cuts are not. Other unions have received larger wage hikes, in part to help offset the introduction of workers’ co-paying for health insurance.

Additionally, Childers said the school district wants to remove sub-contracting language and references to apprenticeship training.

“Now why would an institute of learning want to eliminate programs that teach people living-wage skills? There is no rhyme or reason to their proposals,” said Childers.

In the face of restructurings and budget cuts since 1991 the construction maintenance department at the school district has been cut from approximately 160 workers to just 60. The DCU in its entirety represents approximately 400 school employees.

The skeleton construction maintenance crews — which include plumbers, electrical workers, painters and others — say they are so short-staffed now that “it’s like trying to keep a house of cards from tumbling,” Childers said. “They run from fire to fire instead of doing real maintenance.”

Kirkpatrick said the school district could have a deal right now at less cost than it has paid out in separation agreements with administrative personnel.

In 2001, the school district paid a severance package worth $238,000 to an administrator who was forced out after working just seven months, then spent $260,000 on a severance deal to oust former Superintendent Ben Canada.

Steve Goldschmidt, head of the school district’s human resources department, reportedly has a severance package worth at least $357,000.

The last mediated session was held Jan. 10, and two more sessions are scheduled for Feb. 3 and Feb. 7.

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