School employees move closer to strike at Portland School District

Talks between the District Council of Unions (DCU) and the Portland School District collapsed Nov. 18, prompting union officials to start making arrangements for a potential strike.

The mediated bargaining session was the last round of talks scheduled prior to the expiration of a 30-day “cooling-off” period. The school district declared an impasse in bargaining Oct. 14 and filed an unfair labor practice complaint against the unions with the Oregon Employment Relations Board Oct. 20.

Some 300 craft and maintenance workers, bus and truck drivers, warehouse employees and other support staff have been working without a new contract since June 30, 2004. The DCU is an umbrella group of a dozen union locals that bargains jointly.

“We are frustrated and disappointed,” said Gene Blackburn, chief negotiator for the DCU. Blackburn is a union representative of Teamsters Local 206.

The two sides are far apart on cost-sharing for health insurance and contract language regarding contracting out.

“They talk about fairness, but where is the fairness if an administrator making $125,000 pays out $200 a month for their health insurance and the person making $12.20 an hour driving a school bus and not getting paid on holidays, is paying the same $200 a month?” said Jon Hunt, vice president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757.  

Hunt, who has been criticized by school officials as holding out when other unions have tentatively agreed to co-payments for health insurance, says that the district-literature keeps saying that the bus operator pay comes out of the classroom money.

But that’s not true, Hunt pointed out.  “Seventy percent of the money to pay for school bus drivers comes directly from a state transportation fund that is unrelated to other school funds. It is dedicated transportation funding. It can’t be used in the classroom.”

“As we stated before, we are willing to make cuts, but only on 30 percent,”  he said.

Meanwhile, maintenance and craft employees represented by several building trades unions are unhappy with language changes that would open the door to contracting-out maintenance work to non-union contractors that aren’t registered apprenticeship training agents.

“We have worked for years — and gave up a lot — to get that language in the contract. The school district wants to gut it all,” said John Kirkpatrick, a business representative for Painters District Council 5.

What happens next? The school district can impose its final contract offer and the DCU can issue a 10-day strike notice.

Members of Local 757 have rejected two contract proposals and have authorized a strike.

“We are facing a strike situation,” said Michael O’Rourke of Plumbers and Fitters Local 290. “It’s been 18 months. They started off by taking away 100 things we had bargained for over 30 years. Suddenly everything was on the table: ‘Cut this, cut that.’ ”

“This has never happened before,” Blackburn acknowledged. “We’ve always reached a common agreement that was good for us, the school district and the kids.”

At press time, the school district had not implemented the contract. Blackburn said the unions were looking into how to proceed with a strike vote.

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