Education

Here’s what’s happening with other unionized Portland schools workers during teachers strike

By Natalie Pate (OPB)
Nov. 15, 2023 2:15 p.m. Updated: Nov. 16, 2023 1:43 a.m.

Custodians and nutrition employees in Portland Public Schools are still cleaning buildings and feeding kids during the strike, while their own contract negotiations linger

Hundreds of Portland Public Schools employees continue to work in school buildings and serve students as the district’s first-ever teachers strike stretches into its third week. Many are helping on picket lines while their own contract tensions grow.

There are five unions in Oregon’s largest K-12 school district. Currently on strike, the Portland Association of Teachers represents certified teachers, coaches and substitutes. But the other four unions represent thousands more.

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Maintenance and construction workers are represented by the District Council of Unions, or DCU. They’re in early stages of bargaining with the district on their latest contract. Bus drivers are part of the Amalgamated Transit Union, or ATU. They do not have an open contract, according to the district.

And the final two are in the middle of heated contract talks.

The Service Employees International Union, or in the PPS context, SEIU Local 503, and the Portland Federation of School Professionals, or PFSP, represent a combined 2,000 classified employees in Portland schools.

SEIU represents approximately 500 custodians and nutrition services workers, while PFSP represents dozens of positions across a wide range of jobs, including paraeducators, library assistants, campus safety associates, sign language interpreters and occupational therapists.

Together, they help teachers and administrators serve the district’s 44,000-plus students. But, since these workers are represented under unions other than PAT, they are expected to continue working during the strike.

That means that even though students are not attending classes, these workers are maintaining buildings, administering meals, patrolling campuses and more. Bus drivers are helping deliver those meals and driving varsity athletes to away games. Many are doing additional training or going over their routes for efficiency and practice.

Several classified workers have voiced frustrations on social media and to members of the press about mounting responsibilities landing on their plates. And in a school board meeting earlier this month, shortly after the teachers strike started, classified union leaders objected to being asked to do work outside the scope of their jobs that licensed teachers would otherwise perform.

PFSP has filed a grievance to that effect. Still, the district maintains that “supporting students with foundational reading skills and reinforcing lessons already taught in the classroom is appropriate for their classification and is not ‘struck work.’”

Staff at Abernethy Elementary School talk to people through a school window, as picketers with the Portland Association of Teachers march outside, Nov. 1, 2023. The Portland Federation of School Professionals (PFSP) and SEIU Local 503 represent a combined 2,000 classified employees in PPS who continue to work through the district’s teacher strike.

Staff at Abernethy Elementary School talk to people through a school window, as picketers with the Portland Association of Teachers march outside, Nov. 1, 2023. The Portland Federation of School Professionals (PFSP) and SEIU Local 503 represent a combined 2,000 classified employees in PPS who continue to work through the district’s teacher strike.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

This is all happening as SEIU and PFSP are in prolonged contract negotiations of their own.

After months of bargaining, both unions earlier this month independently filed for mediation with PPS. Their previous contracts ended July 1. Key issues include wages, staffing, cleanliness and safety. PFSP has ground rules that limit communication with the press while in mediation and could not talk with OPB for this story.

But Melissa Unger, executive director of the local SEIU union, spoke on her union’s behalf. She said they want to show support and solidarity with the teachers as they face similar negotiation challenges with PPS.

“It’s not just one bargaining unit. It’s not just one worker,” Unger said. “It feels like an overall trend for how bargaining is going and the respect that we have felt at the bargaining table.”

The district did not answer OPB’s questions about the SEIU contract proposals or comment in response to the union’s declared frustrations at the bargaining table by Tuesday evening. Communications officials said the delay was because they were still checking into whether bargaining ground rules allowed them to speak with media about these specifics.

Classified staff continue to work, join picket lines

Unger has been on the picket line with teachers outside Beach Elementary School in North Portland, where her kids attend. She’s been helping lead chants to give the teachers a break from yelling, she said with a laugh.

Meanwhile, Jim D’Arcy has been going to school picket lines and voicing his support too. D’Arcy has worked in the district for about seven years. He’s a custodian at Llewellyn Elementary School in Southeast Portland and the bargaining team co-chair for SEIU.

He said he wants PAT members to know SEIU is “there for them as union brothers and sisters.”

D’Arcy said he’s been able to get some work done that’s harder to do with students and staff filling the hallways and classrooms, but without them there, “it just feels wrong.”

Fellow SEIU bargaining team member Chris Walters agreed. Walters is the Nutrition Service Lead at McDaniel High School in Northeast Portland, with nearly a decade of experience working for PPS.

He said he joins the picket line outside his school whenever he has a break. He’s joined the afternoon and evening rallies; he’s testified to the school board.

In this screenshot from a video feed, representatives from the Portland Federation of School Professionals and SEIU unions speak at the Portland Public Schools Board of Education meeting on Nov. 7, 2023, at the district office in Portland. PFSP president Elizabeth Held, left, spoke first. Chris Walters, an SEIU bargaining team member, right, spoke later.

In this screenshot from a video feed, representatives from the Portland Federation of School Professionals and SEIU unions speak at the Portland Public Schools Board of Education meeting on Nov. 7, 2023, at the district office in Portland. PFSP president Elizabeth Held, left, spoke first. Chris Walters, an SEIU bargaining team member, right, spoke later.

Screenshot / PPS Board of Education video

Walters said nutrition workers know they’re not feeding nearly as many kids with grab-and-go meals during the strike as they typically do when school is in session. He usually serves about 650 kids a day, but he now serves closer to 60.

“I worry about those 600 kids who aren’t eating with me,” Walters told OPB.

“We all love feeding the kids. That’s what we do this for,” he said. “And knowing that there’s a lot of kids who aren’t being fed,” he paused, “it’s, it’s stressful, and it’s depressing.”

Walters said it’s worse since he and others on the picket line believe this was a preventable disaster. He argues the district has the power to end the dispute and that they “let it get to this point.”

District officials maintain that PAT is standing in the way of an agreement.

Proposals from the district and teachers union coming out of last weekend were still more than $200 million apart, according to the district’s analysis. That’s despite meeting with the state’s chief financial officer to get on the same page regarding what is financially feasible. However, there seems to have been some movement late Tuesday as Portland teachers cut their proposal by millions.

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Will Howell, a spokesperson for the district, sent an email to reporters Tuesday, saying PPS was “shocked to learn” PAT has brought another new person in to discuss budgeting and cost estimates: John Borsos, executive director of the Sacramento City Teachers Association, or SCTA.

Howell gave examples of critiques the Sacramento district superintendent made against SCTA leaders, naming Borsos.

“[Oregon’s] CFO was tasked with help lending clarity to our financial discussions. She did,” Howell wrote in the recent email to reporters. “And yet, we continue to go in circles — now with a new person in the mix who has a track record we do not want to bring to Portland.”

Grievances, forced ‘scabs’

Though PFSP did not comment on this story due to ongoing bargaining talks, they have voiced their frustrations about what they’re being told to do during the teachers’ strike — work they argue makes them forced scabs.

“We are encouraged to hear that the chair believes that we are working toward solutions because my members have expressed to me that they are currently in a crisis of faith with the administration of Portland Public Schools,” acting PFSP president Elizabeth Held told school board members at its most recent meeting, as previously reported by OPB.

She noted that some of her members are uncomfortable being assigned specific duties while teachers are striking. They argue the tasks are either not in their job descriptions or that they aren’t adequately trained to provide them.

PPS has continued some academic services for the district’s highest-need students. They’ve done so via classified workers, who were, for example, given 64-page “reading coach packets” just before the start of the strike.

Some families have expressed similar concerns about crossing the picket line by utilizing those services. But it’s complicated. Parents are simultaneously worried that their kids will otherwise miss out on needed instruction during the school closures.

“I have members reaching out to me every day, disgusted by the fact that they’ve been asked to teach — excuse me — coach, for our lowest performing students,” Held told the school board.

Held gave examples of a woman who asked her how she — “a woman who immigrated from the Soviet Union” — was supposed to support students in phonics when she herself struggles with English pronunciation.

An educational assistant was concerned that she was assigned to work with a nonverbal student when she had no special education training, Held continued in her testimony.

“All our labor has dignity,” she said. “My members in PFSP deserve more. SEIU deserves more. PAT deserves more. Our students deserve more. Our communities deserve more.”

Valerie Feder with the district’s communications department confirmed that PFSP filed a grievance about these issues. And though the district maintains its argument that classified workers are not being asked to do “struck work,” she said Tuesday that PPS is honoring the grievance process and will meet with PFSP leadership to learn more about their concerns.

Unger spoke on this briefly, saying that working outside someone’s skill level or training is really hard. “The school district can’t act like this can continue …,” she told OPB. “You can’t do this work in a school district without the work that our folks are doing.”

The classified workers OPB spoke to emphasized that the teachers union is not making them feel like they’re crossing the picket line. As D’Arcy put it — because they’re in a separate union, they must come to work, and PAT is aware of that.

The classified workers often join the picket line with the same people they work with to run the schools daily. Unger and Walters stressed that it’s a community. And that didn’t end because of the strike.

“When I go out on the picket line on my breaks, the level of solidarity, camaraderie, that I feel from the teachers and with the teachers is just incredible,” Walters said. “And as much as I don’t like the fact that I’m legally required to cross the picket line, I know they understand, and they’re immensely happy just to see me come out and join them.”

SEIU pushes for higher wages, safer conditions

Like teachers, compensation and staffing are top of mind in ongoing contract negotiations. But those aren’t the only issues SEIU’s bargaining team is focusing on, as they plan for mediation with the district.

Walters said SEIU’s current proposal has the starting wage for nutrition service workers, assistants and custodians at $22.08 an hour. Under their proposal, the starting wage could increase to $25 an hour after three years. Unger said that represents some movement from recent years. Some of these workers are making just above $17 an hour right now.

They said higher pay would help with their high turnover rate, which D’Arcy said is about 25%. Turnover and understaffing put further pressure on workers to not take time off or to do more than is manageable with daily tasks. The pandemic only made those things more challenging, as cleaning requirements increased amid nationwide staffing shortages.

“I mean, our workers are the lowest paid workers in the school district pretty much,” Unger said. “But, I mean, what I’ve heard consistently across the board … [is] there’s a real feeling of a lack of respect for the work folks do every day.”

SEIU is calling for the district to maintain higher staffing numbers to meet cleaning and security expectations and a mandatory two custodians at night to lock up a school so no one is alone.

They also want extra pay for locking up. Their proposal would include a higher daily bonus for the days an employee does this — $10 per day per person versus the current $2. The district currently only gives extra pay for closing up to high school custodians, the SEIU reps said, but the union wants that extended to elementary and middle school staff.

And they want inclement weather pay. D’Arcy recalled a time in February when snow hit Portland harder than usual. He said he worked until 10 p.m. one of those nights.

“I got off work. I walked down to the bus stop. I stood there for over an hour and then realized, ‘Oh, TriMet’s not running. Great. Now I have to find a way home,’” he said. “I had to call an Uber. Now, this is just before payday. Luckily, I had the money in the bank, but it cost me $50 to go four miles in an Uber. And we’re still trying to fight that grievance.

“So, I mean, it’s very frustrating.”

Unger said they’ve already cut some things out of their proposal to help move the process along, such as negotiations about building temperatures, a sticking point in the teachers’ contract as well.

Unger said the state has proposed mediation dates for January, but SEIU would like to meet sooner. Feder, with the district, said there are three more bargaining sessions scheduled before that.

All three emphasized they want to settle and avoid a strike at all costs, especially seeing the ramifications of the current teachers strike. But they also want their jobs to be respected, and their contracts to reflect that.

“The feeling at [the bargaining] table sometimes makes us feel less than, less than human,” D’Arcy said. “We’re tired.”

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