February 1, 2008 Volume 109 Number 3

Portland Public Schools sticks to draconian offers

The honeymoon is over. Unions at Portland Public Schools (PPS) had high hopes last October that a new superintendent, Carole Smith, might steer the district away from years of harsh labor relations stances toward the least-paid workers.

By now it’s clear that hasn’t happened.

In drawn-out bargaining with three separate unions, the district hasn’t shifted much from the proposals it had before Smith was appointed: for some, savage wage cuts of up to one quarter; for others, wage increases that will account for just half the rate of inflation. And district labor negotiators are insisting that union employees pay the same monthly cost as much higher-paid non-represented administrators. In other words, $11-an-hour cafeteria workers, $14-an-hour custodians, $15-an-hour school bus drivers, and $16-an-hour secretaries could pay the same couple hundred dollars per month that $100,000-a-year principals and central office higher-ups pay.

Unions are taking to the streets in protest, and appealing to the school board to change course.

For an hour before the Jan. 28 PPS school board meeting, a crowd of about 200 rallied outside district’s 501 North Dixon Street headquarters to focus attention on the district’s plans for about 500 custodians and cafeteria workers — who are part of 43,000-member Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 503.

Earlier in the day, the SEIU bargaining team walked out of mediation after getting the district’s latest offer, which was worse than the previous one. Under the latest PPS proposal, the highest-paid custodians — head custodians overseeing half a dozen subordinates at the district’s biggest high schools — would have their pay cut $4.11 an hour, from $23.62 to $19.51. Head custodians at smaller schools, many with 10 or 20 years of experience at the district, would go from $18.80 an hour to $14.92 — a $3.88-an-hour pay cut. Rank-and-file custodial helpers — who make up the bulk of the district’s 300-strong bare-bones custodial crew — would go from $14 an hour to $11.43, a $2.57-an-hour cut. And starting wages would drop from $13.25 to $11.15 an hour.

Meanwhile, the district’s mostly part-time cafeteria workers, paid wages of $12.70 an hour, are being offered a 1.5 percent annual increase. Inflation has been about 3 percent a year for the last five years, so cafeteria workers could expect to lose purchasing power each year. And that’s before the increased monthly premiums for health care.

The district is proposing to raise its health insurance contribution cap — for all workers — from $779 to $800.

The district also proposed to split the bargaining unit in two: cafeteria workers would have one contract, and custodians another. SEIU said no to that.

SEIU’s next mediated negotiating session is scheduled for Feb. 5.

SEIU’s rally drew powerful supporters, including Oregon Senate Majority Leader (and Oregon Secretary of State candidate) Kate Brown; Oregon House Speaker (and U.S. Senate candidate) Jeff Merkely, plus Steve Novick, his rival for the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination; Oregon State Sen. (and candidate for State Treasurer) Ben Westlund; Oregon House Speaker Pro Tem Diane Rosenbaum; and at least four other candidates for Oregon Attorney General, Portland City Council, and Oregon House.

Portland Association of Teachers President Jeff Miller was also there to show support. In March, the teachers will start their own negotiations with the district.

And SEIU’s top brass was in attendance, including Local 503 Executive Director (and international vice president) Leslie Frane, her counterpart Alice Dale from SEIU Local 49, and SEIU’s national president Andy Stern.

Stern, who was in Portland as a guest speaker for the Lezak Lecture Series, skipped an honorary dinner to speak to rally-goers.

“On behalf of the 2 million members of this union,” Stern said, “I want to say this loud and clear to the school board: ‘Whatever it takes, for as long as it takes, we are not going backwards again.’ ’’

A day later the union representing 1,300 PPS secretaries, special ed assistants, and other classifications held an informational picket outside Benson High School. The Portland Federation of Teachers and Classified Employees Local 111, an affiliate of American Federation of Teachers-Oregon, hasn’t been able to get so much as a cost-of-living increase in more than nine months of negotiations. PFTCE is also in mediation; the next scheduled negotiation session is Feb. 26.

Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757, which represents 85 special education school bus drivers, is in the same position: drawn out bargaining, no agreement, and no willingness by the district to keep wages up with inflation.

District administrators, meanwhile, have received raises well above inflation.

At their Jan. 28 meeting, PPS Board members entered the room together through a side entrance, rather than walk through the union crowd, which filled the room and spilled out into the hall in back. The front row was stacked with custodians with paper signs safety-pinned to their shirts showing how much they’d lose in wages under the district’s proposal: ‘-$483 a month,’ ‘-$712 a month,’ ‘-$664 a month.’

The board took public comment from three people, then had a short meeting followed by an executive session to discuss labor negotiations. The executive session was closed to the press and the public.


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