Supreme Court says Portland school custodians fired illegally

SALEM — The Oregon Supreme Court ruled 4-3 on Oct. 12 that the Portland School District violated state labor law when it contracted with a private company for custodial services.

“We look forward to seeing our members get their jobs back. And we hope that this decision will make other employers think twice before they try to save a quick buck by outsourcing crucial services that Oregonians need and deserve,” said Leslie Frane, executive director of Service Employees Local 503, Oregon Public Employees Union, an affiliate of the Change To Win labor federation.

In 2002, the Portland Public Schools board of directors voted 5-2 to contract out custodial services and, in the process, fired more than 300 members of School Employees Local 140, then an affiliate of SEIU. With the loss of more than half its membership, Local 140 dissolved and its remaining members were merged with Local 503.

Jim Scherzinger was the acting superintendent at the time and former board co-chair Julia Brim-Edwards now serves as Nike’s deputy director for state and public affairs.

After the first wave of 92 custodians and helpers was fired, former Local 140 President Grant Walter helped file a complaint with the Custodial Civil Service Board claiming the terminations violated state law. The Civil Service Board was established by the Oregon Legislature in 1937 to set hiring qualifications and examinations for custodians in the Portland School District.

The board agreed with the workers and ordered their reinstatement.

The school district ignored the ruling, however, and fired the remaining custodians. As the union proceeded to file another complaint with the Civil Service Board, the district got a court injunction to stop it. That set in motion a series of appeals and rulings — from the Oregon Employment Relations Board to the Oregon Court of Appeals — all of which said the school district could contract out custodial jobs.

The union finally appealed to the Oregon Supreme Court, which reversed the previous rulings. The decision was written by Paul DeMuniz, He was joined by Robert Durham, Rives Kistler and R. William Riggs.

“We fought the battle. We kept the battle going because it was the right thing to do,” Walter told the Northwest Labor Press. “This ruling gives me renewed faith in the system.”

Walter now works for the Portland Housing Authority and is a member of Laborers Local 296.

Jim Coon, of the law firm Swanson, Thomas and Coon, who represented the custodians, said “the school district took a big chance when they did this. They decided to risk it.”

Coon said the school district and union agreed at the time of the ERB hearing to be bound by whatever decision was reached. Coon believes all the fired custodians should be reinstated with back pay.

“The district does not concede that this opinion requires reinstatement and back pay,” said Jollee Faber Patterson, legal counsel for the school district.

In fact, the school district has 14 days (until Oct. 27) to ask the high court to reconsider its decision. At press time it had not done so. Faber Patterson said the school district has already spent $141,546 on the dispute.

According to the school district, it saved $10.6 million in the 2002-03 and 2003-04 school years by contracting out custodial services. The company it contracts with, Portland Habilitation Center, is a private, non-profit corporation that has a collective bargaining agreement with SEIU Local 49.

“Contracting out Portland Public Schools’ janitors is another example of school districts cutting costs on the backs of workers, and in the process violating civil service laws,” said Alice Dale, president of Local 49. “This harms both the janitors who lost their jobs and the janitors who currently clean the schools. Taxpayers are now forced to pick up the tab — schools, and the children who attend them, will pay a higher price because of the illegal actions taken. Now is the time to refocus our efforts on family-wage jobs and what is best for workers, our public schools, and our community.”