December 7, 2007 Volume 108 Number 23

Classified staff strike at Multnomah ESD

Following months of contentious bargaining, classified staff at the Multnomah Education Service District went on strike Nov. 30.

About 380 employees are members of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 1995. The two sides met with a state mediator for seven hours on Nov. 28, and for six-and- one-half hours on Dec. 3, but those sessions yielded little movement and no agreement.

The current contract expired June 30 and MESD implemented its final offer Nov. 29. At press time, there were no talks scheduled.

“We tried,” said Oregon AFSCME Public Affairs Director Don Loving. “Typical of these entire negotiations, we sent five different proposals to MESD management through the mediator. Their response was ‘no, no, no, no and no.’ “

AFSCME presented a sixth offer at the Dec. 3 mediation that Loving said would have brought the two sides to within $200,000 of an agreement. MESD rejected it, too. Leading up to the strike, Loving said the sides were apart by roughly $300,000 to $400,000. MESD maintains it would cost another $1.4 million to meet the workers’ requests.

MESD is represented at the bargaining table by Salem attorney Bruce Zagar. As reported previously in the Labor Press, Zagar has a reputation for a take-it-or-leave-it style. He represented the Oregon Trail School District in Sandy in 2005 and that resulted in a bitter month-long teacher’s strike there.

Wages and benefits are the two major issues in the MESD dispute, with health insurance premium costs — particularly for MESD’s permanent 30-hour a week workers — a major sticking point.

According to the union, most other ESDs — which are smaller and substantially less well-funded — consider permanent 30-hour-a-week-employees to be full-time when calculating health care benefits. Not Multnomah ESD. “This local includes many employees who work 30 hours a week, not by choice, but because that’s all the hours the district offers them,” Loving said.

MESD is one of 20 special regional education districts in Oregon, funded by the state to help local school districts with services like special education for students with disabilities. The largest single group of MESD employees — about 175 — are educational assistants who work in classrooms with special needs students. Others provide technical support services, school health functions and Outdoor School to eight Multnomah County school districts, including Centennial, Corbett, David Douglas, Gresham-Barlow, Parkrose, Portland Public, Reynolds and Riverdale. Depending on their job title and experience, they earn from $11 to $17 an hour, and average $26,000 a year.

“We have folks who spend half their take home pay on health care premiums,” Loving said. “The District has permanent employees on food stamps and other social services. They should be embarrassed how they treat their employees.”

On its Web site, MESD says its implemented contract “ not subject to change in response to emotional or political tactics. Any monies redirected for a larger settlement would cause MESD to curtail critical services and cut jobs.”

Loving noted that MESD has a $10 million unappropriated fund balance that it carries each year. “This is not a matter of MESD being unable to afford a settlement,” he said. “They just don’t want to treat their employees fairly.”

Pickets went up at 7 a.m. Nov. 30 at the MESD administration building on Northeast Airport Way in Portland. They later spread to other schools serviced by the District, such as Alpha High School in Gresham and the Donald E. Long Juvenile Detention Facility in Portland.

Loving said MESD spent $100,000 to hire a security firm to monitor picketing. “They say our members could be ‘prone to violence,’ to use their phrase,” Loving said. “In other words, they trust our members to handle Portland’s special needs students six hours a day in the classroom, but God forbid we walk a sidewalk with a picket sign in hand.”

Employees nearly struck last year after working under terms of a contract that had expired in 2005. An 11th hour mediation averted a walkout, but it left many hard feelings.

MESD is governed by an elected seven-person Board of Directors. The directors serve four-year terms and are not compensated for their services.

Home | About

© Oregon Labor Press Publishing Co. Inc.