Portland Public Schools backs off hardline stance

Portland Public Schools (PPS) appears ready to bury the hatchet after a long-running standoff with three of its unions.

On Feb. 5, PPS announced a tentative agreement on a new contract with Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 757, covering 85 special ed school bus drivers. Hours later, the district announced a tentative deal with 500 custodians and cafeteria workers who belong to Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 503. And three bargaining sessions are scheduled for the second half of February with the union that represents 1,400 clerical and support staff — Portland Federation of Teachers and Classified Employees (PFTCE), Local 111 of the American Federation of Teachers-Oregon.

PPS’ most dramatic turnaround was with SEIU. For months, the district had been demanding pay cuts of up to $4.25 an hour for the custodians, many of whom were reinstated in 2006 four years after the district illegally outsourced their jobs.

SEIU ramped up pressure on the school board and the district’s new superintendent. The union held large protest rallies at district headquarters, got sympathetic state and local elected leaders to call the district, and aired radio ads on four stations for two weeks to shame the district for its draconian treatment of the custodians. The ads asked listeners to call PPS Superintendent Carole Smith, and made it clear SEIU was prepared to question the district’s campaign to get voter approval for funds to upgrade school buildings.

“At some point somebody in the district figured out that trying to get a pound of flesh from this group wasn’t worth it,” said SEIU Local 503 spokesperson Ed Hershey. “We made the point subtly that with a $1.4 billion bond issue on the horizon, the last thing they wanted was for us to question their commitment to maintaining those buildings.”

In the end, the district agreed to let custodians keep their current pay — $13.25 to $23.62 an hour, depending on experience and the level of responsibility. Cafeteria workers, who make from $9.62 to $13.96 now, will get three annual wage increases of 2.5 percent; the first raise will be immediate, but won’t be retroactive to July 1, 2007, when the last contract expired.

Cafeteria workers will also get Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a paid holiday for the first time.

And the district will begin paying as much as $826 a month for custodian and cafeteria workers’ health insurance under a complex formula that now gives them an average of $698. The district contribution was capped at $779 in the last contract.

Bargaining unit members reacted to the deal with a combination of exhilaration and relief. They will vote Feb. 16 on whether to ratify the three-year agreement.

With the ATU contract, neither side was releasing all the details as of press time, but both said it’s a fair deal, a four-and-a-half-year contract that covers the period Jan. 1, 2006 to June 30, 2010.

It’s also a better deal than the one ATU members rejected last year, said Local 757 Vice President Sam Schwarz. It contains 2.5 percent annual pay increases; right now, the drivers earn $12.66 to $16.51 an hour. The employee share of monthly health insurance premiums would go down to $160 a month from the current $200, though doctor’s visit co-pays would rise from $5 to $20. The school board is scheduled to approve the deal Feb. 25; the union hasn’t scheduled a contract ratification vote yet, but the bargaining team will recommend approval.

Incredibly, the two sides have been negotiating since December 2005.

The school board is scheduled to approve the SEIU and ATU contracts at its Feb. 25 meeting.

Meanwhile, negotiations will continue on a new contract for PFTCE — the classified employees union. Informal bargaining sessions are scheduled for Feb. 15 and 22, and if no agreement is reached, a state-appointed mediator will work with the two sides Feb. 26.

After two years of 1.5 percent raises, PFTCE wants cost-of-living adjustments tied to increases in the Consumer Price Index — and an end to a freeze on step increases. The district’s wage counteroffer hasn’t gone above about 2 percent. Members currently make $12.50 to $19, depending on classification and experience.

The union has begun conducting informational pickets at least a week. Thus far, pickets have gone up outside Benson High School, Cleveland High School and Pioneer Middle School. But PFTCE President Tom Smith is hopeful the district may be ready to settle.

Negotiations are expected to begin in March on the next contract for the district’s largest bargaining unit — the Portland Association of Teachers, an affiliated of the Oregon Education Assocation.

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