Portland School District declares impasse in talks with DCU

Portland Public Schools has declared an impasse in its negotiations with the District Council of Unions (DCU), an umbrella group of a dozen union locals that represent approximately 300 craft and maintenance workers, bus and truck drivers, community agents and campus monitors at the school district.

Employees have been working without a new contract since June 30, 2004.

According to DCU spokesman Gene Blackburn of Teamsters Local 206, a tentative agreement has been reached on the main body of the contract and all but two side agreements have been signed off by their respective unions. Under the DCU, a final contract isn’t voted until all side agreements — referred to as appendices in the final package — are in place.

Key sticking points have been caps on health insurance, contracting out and wage increases.

In September, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757 twice voted down its tentative agreement (Appendix F). “It was voted down unanimously, which we knew it would be,” said ATU President Al Zullo, because bus operators opposed a health insurance cap of just over $700 a month. “These are part-time operators who make around $25,000 a year. The cost of health insurance through the district is $985 a month. They can’t afford to pay more than $200 a month for their health insurance.”

ATU’s second vote had strike authorization attached to it and Zullo said that a walkout is possible. The union represents approximately 85 drivers who primarily provide lift-service for special education students. Laidlaw Transit sub-contracts with the school district for regular bus routes. Its bus operators also belong to Local 757.

“Laidlaw drivers wouldn’t be on strike with us, if it comes to that,” Zullo said, “but they’re our members and they wouldn’t cross our picket line.”

Maintenance and craft workers initially balked at the insurance cap because it did not include any wage hikes to help employees offset the out-of-pocket expenses that they would incur. Union officials also strongly opposed subcontracting language that the school district is demanding.

“It opens the door to subcontracting maintenance work with little regard to prevailing wage rules and apprenticeship training requirements for subcontractors,” said John Kirkpatrick, a business representative of Painters and Drywall Finishers Local 10. “The language they want will leave unions on the outside and allow the school district to cheap out the work to anyone.”

The school district says many of the wage rates in the DCU contract are higher than comparable jobs in other Portland-area school districts. “The PPA offer contained no wage reductions, while including modest wage increases where it is needed to be more competitive with other school districts,” said Bob Lawrence.

Union officials said they had to fight for months to get the school district to move off of wage cuts in earlier proposals.

“A wage freeze with out-of-pocket costs for health insurance is a net loss for workers,” Kirkpatrick said. “But this isn’t about economics. I believe the school district has been stalling us while they work out a plan with the City of Portland to take over maintenance services.”

Union officials said members also are irked by past reports of the school district handing out $165,000 in performance bonuses to 18 of its highest-paid administrators for the 2003-04 school year, and the $625,000 paid to former human resources director Steve Goldschmidt after an arbitrator ruled that he had been wrongfully terminated.

State law sets the timeline for what will come next. In the next week, each party is obligated to exchange final offers and present them to the Oregon Employment Relations Board. A 30-day cooling off period follows the exchange and it is likely there will be at least one additional bargaining session with the mediator during that time. At the end of the cooling-off period, the school district can implement all or part of its final offer and the unions have the right to strike after giving a mandatory 10-day notice.

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