August 4, 2006  Volume 107 Number 16

Portland Public School custodians’ return murky

Eight months after the Oregon Supreme Court ruled that privatizing Portland Public Schools custodial department was illegal, details about the custodians’ return to work are still murky.

Just over a month before the school year begins, it wasn’t clear how many of the roughly 330 custodians the district fired in August 2002 would choose to return.

On July 6, the district sent a letter to the attorneys representing the custodians. The letter announced an offer to “recall” them to their former positions, and imposed a deadline of July 20 for individuals to accept the offer.

That deadline was extended to July 28, and again to Aug. 4.

Attorneys representing custodians maintain the district had no authority to impose a deadline for the acceptance of reinstatement offer. But they and the steering committee elected by the terminated custodians to oversee their return plan to cooperate and try to meet the deadline. They think over half may agree to return; a better number will be available Aug. 4.

Some details emerged when steering committee chair Steve Armony had his first meeting July 26 with his district counterparts — Jim Christensen, hired to manage the transition, and Randy Thomas, custodial service manager. The district has signed a contract with PHC, the current janitorial contractor, to use its supervisors until December. Once the district has determined how many custodians want to return, it will fill positions in order of seniority, and then hire to fill any still-vacant positions. New hires will have to pass a civil service exam. The goal is to get everyone on the job before school begins Sept. 6. Once all positions are filled, the workers will choose a contract bargaining team, which will be joined by a staffperson from their union, Service Employees International Union Local 503.

The chief hurdle to returning, Armony says, is that it’s tough for custodians to make a decision when they don’t know what they'll be returning to.

“It ain’t gonna be like the old days,” Armony said. “They’ll have to be more of a united union than ever to go back to work for the school district.”

The district said it would pay them their old salaries, plus the same percentage increases that were given to the district’s cafeteria workers over the last four years. Armony and the attorneys reject the idea that raises negotiated for one group can apply to the other, but agreed to settle that dispute once custodians are back to work.

In any case, that pay will last only until a new union contract is negotiated. And the district shows every sign of returning to the hardball bargaining stances it had in the past.

This time, the district may bargain in a hurry. In recent bargaining with cafeteria workers and office support staff, the district dragged its feet and held off for six months before giving its wage and benefit proposal. The custodians, on the other hand, have been given a de facto proposal before they return to work, and before their bargaining team has been selected. The custodians won’t be district employees — or union members — until they formally accept reinstatement and return to work.

The district is proposing to pay custodians what the employees of PHC, the private contractor, were paid — $10.55 an hour for “day custodians” and $10.35 an hour for “night janitors.” In other words, the district will pay custodians $14.56 to $22.71 upon return (presumably because it’s legally obligated to) and then propose to cut that salary a third to a half.

Four years ago, the district proposed a cut of nearly as much, asking custodians to absorb $4.5 million in wage and benefit concessions out of a total of $15.6 million. PPS didn’t budge from that offer in six months of negotiations. Faced with the threat of privatization, the union bargaining team agreed to accept $2.4 million of that cut, but the district decided to pursue the whole $4.5 million cut by outsourcing the department.

Armony said he expects bargaining will again be hard-fought when custodians return.

This time, it’s clear the district can’t legally privatize. But it can declare impasse and impose its offer, if and when bargaining breaks down. Then the union would be faced with the choice to strike or take concessions.

The PPS Board has asked district management to keep the custodial department budget to $16 or $17 million. Four years ago it was $18 million. In all likelihood, there will be fewer custodians to do the same work.

That’s the future the custodians would return to. It’s no wonder many are hesitant to return.