Oregon Supreme Court upholds decision custodians illegally fired

SALEM — The Oregon Supreme Court has once again sided with former custodians at Portland Public Schools by refusing to reconsider a ruling that the school district violated state labor law when it fired 320 custodians and contracted with a private company for janitorial services.

The custodians were represented by School Employees Local 140, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union. The layoffs in 2002 decimated the union, and it was eventually dissolved and merged with SEIU Local 503, Oregon Public Employees Union. Local 503 currently represents approximately 300 cafeteria workers at Portland Public Schools.

Before the merger, Local 140, led by President Grant Walter, filed lawsuits charging that the school district violated the state civil service law when it fired the custodians. That law requires the Civil Service Board to hire and fire any custodians directly employed by the school district.

The Employment Relations Board, Multnomah County Circuit Court and Oregon Court of Appeals disagreed. The union appealed all the way to the Oregon Supreme Court.

On Oct, 12, 2005, the high court ruled 4-3 that the school district did, indeed, violate the civil service law. Portland school officials then asked the court to reconsider its decision and on April 25, 2006, the court denied that request.

“I’m just thrilled with the news,” Walter told the NW Labor Press. “We have argued all along that we were fired illegally. Now we’ll wait for the penalty phase to kick in.”

The school district reportedly paid custodians approximately $16 million in the last year of their contract, which included benefits and retirement under the Public Employees Retirement System. “A lot of custodians haven’t found work, and those who did haven’t received the same pay and benefits (as the school district contract),” Walter said.

The former custodian and Local 140 president said four months ago potential back pay stood at $50 million. Newspaper reports indicate the tab might be as much as $64 million.

Walter said attorneys from both sides are meeting in hopes of brokering a deal as quickly as possible.

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