July 7, 2006  Volume 107 Number 14

Three bargaining units settle contracts at Portland Schools

By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor

Oregon’s largest school district appears to be backing away from open warfare with its unions.

Portland Public Schools (PPS) has different management this year than it had during earlier rounds of contract talks, and seems to have adopted a less hard-line stance. Still, the district’s three contract settlements in June look less like declarations of love than temporary truces between adversaries.

The district’s 47,000 students are taught by 3,800 teachers, who are represented by the Portland Association of Teachers, an affiliate of the Oregon Education Association. Their new contract basically keeps the status quo for the next two years. Ratified June 14, it gives them two 2.5 percent cost-of-living raises. Teacher salaries range from roughly $34,000 to $67,000, depending on experience and educational qualifications.

The contract also maintains teachers’ existing health and other benefits. Since 2003, PPS and PAT have worked to contain health care costs. As a result, the District’s monthly contribution per teacher decreased from $930.42 to $829.52. At the same time, the teachers’ monthly premium contribution, which began in 2004, is now at $75.96 a month. The new contract runs through June 30, 2008.

PPS management had wanted to rewrite rules governing teacher hiring, assignments and transfers, but agreed instead to form a committee to look at changes. If representatives from both sides find changes to agree on, they’d be referred to teachers for a vote.

In a press statement, PPS Board Co-chair David Wynde said the agreement “reflects the greatly improved relationship between the school district and our teachers.”

But teachers are likely to notice and remember that three of the seven Board members voted against the contract — and argued that the district should have trimmed teacher health benefits, echoing a position pushed by some Portland business leaders. The three voting against the contract were Dan Ryan, Sonja Henning, and Board co-chair Bobbi Regan. For Ryan and Henning to take that stance surprised PAT President Ann Nice, given that PAT had backed them in the 2005 election.

The district’s 210 cafeteria workers, represented by Service Employees Local 503, also ratified a new contract in June. The contract sets up a two-tier benefit system: Newly-hired part-time workers, if any, will get no health benefits, while current part-timers get pro-rated benefits as before.

Full-time cafeteria workers — defined as 30 hours a week or more — will continue to get full family health benefits, with the employer contribution cap raised from its current $764 a month to $779. The contract also contains two 3 percent wage increases, one of which is retroactive. The group had been without a contract for nearly a year, so the new two-year deal goes to June 30, 2007. Pay for this group of workers ranges from $9 to $13 an hour. PPS’ Nutrition Services is a self -supporting department that collects federal funds and student lunch money of about $2 per meal to feed over 20,000 students a day.

The union had wanted protection against contracting out cafeteria work to private companies. “No,” was the district’s answer.

The third group to reach agreement in June consisted of 1,300 clerical workers, nurses and library and teacher assistants represented by Portland Federation of Teachers and Classified Employees Local 111, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers-Oregon. Their contract contained two 1.5 percent increases, one of them retroactive, meaning their June check will contain a $200 to $300 bonus. But they’ll get no step increases during the life of the contract.

The unit had been without a contract since June 30, 2005. The new two-year agreement runs through June 30, 2007.

Most classifications now will range from $10.50 to $19 an hour; most members in the unit earn about $13 an hour. As with the cafeteria workers, PPS’ health benefit contribution cap was raised to $779 a month.

“It was as good as we could get under the circumstances,” Hornstein said. PPS didn’t give the union any wage proposal until bargaining had been under way six months, and its starting offer was zero percent.

Two groups of workers have yet to negotiate new contracts with the district: The 16-union District Council of Unions, which has been without a contract since Dec. 31, 2005; and the soon-to-be-reinstated custodians, who will be represented by SEIU Local 503.

DCU represents about 300 workers in a variety of occupations and unions, including maintenance, bus drivers and mechanics. The first bargaining sessions are scheduled this summer.

As for the custodians, they were still waiting for the district’s offer of reinstatement as of press time. The entire custodial department, with 330 custodians, was terminated in a 2002 privatization. But the Oregon Supreme Court ruled in October 2005 that their termination was illegal.

Cathy Mincberg, PPS chief operating officer, said the district will have to offer them reinstatement at their old wages and benefits, and negotiate a new union contract then with SEIU. Mincberg said the district doesn’t believe any back pay is owed, however. That issue will likely be settled in federal court, with Mark Griffin and one other attorney representing custodians in separate class action lawsuits.

Jim Coon, the attorney who won the Oregon Supreme Court case, told a PPS Board committee June 14 that about half of the 330 terminated custodians are interested in reinstatement. The rest have gotten better jobs, retired, become disabled, or died.

Mincberg said the district won’t be able to afford the previous number of custodians unless the Board increases the custodial budget.

PPS’ janitorial contract with Portland Habilitation Center expires July 14; the district is seeking to extend it month-to-month until the transition to in-house custodians is complete.

Some have concluded from the recent contract settlements that PPS is embarking on a new era of labor peace, and may be trying to bury the hatchet before the November 2006 election, when it will ask local voters to approve a property tax increase to fund schools.

PPS spokesperson Bob Lawrence agreed the coming election was a factor.

“A new positive relationship takes time,” Lawrence said. “In our relation with represented groups, the perception was we didn’t have a respectful collaboration.”

With the PAT agreement, for the first time in years PPS broke its habit of never signing a new union contract until the old one was expired. The agreement was signed with two weeks remaining in the previous contract.

But the SEIU and AFT-Oregon contracts weren’t completed until nearly a year after the old ones expired. And the district’s negotiating behavior prompted SEIU to file legal charges with the Oregon Employment Relations Board.

SEIU accused the district of “bad faith bargaining,” after it took six months of bargaining before the district made any wage or benefit proposal. SEIU’s case will go forward despite the contract settlement.