Up Bubbles the Charter Schools Question

by Steve, September 16th, 2007

A discussion of Portland Public Schools neighborhood divestment has turned into a debate about charter schools. I don’t mind, really, since it’s a tightly related subject. But it is a topic I was pointedly not addressing. People feel very strongly about this issue, myself included, but for the moment, it is a little distracting from my point about how district policy is disproportionately distributing the public revenue it is trusted with.

But now comes Heather Straube, founder of a new North Portland charter school, getting very defensive about the relationship of charter schools to the teachers union.

As a “daughter of two teamsters and activists,” Straube insists “we are very pro-union,” but later explains that it wouldn’t make sense to have a union with only seven staff members.

What she doesn’t recognize (or chooses not to mention) is that these seven staffers, employees of Portland Public Schools, would otherwise be members of their respective unions. While her one little school may not seem a threat, the movement toward shutting down neighborhood schools and opening charters is a serious threat to union security in any school district.

Assurances to pay union wages “[i]f we can” ring hollow to anybody who has worked both with and without a union contract.

Straube catalogs some of the myriad problems in schools in PPS’ poorest neighborhoods, and goes to great lengths to demonstrate her “liberal” credibility. It’s not a “conservative” movement, she assures us.

Indeed, it is a libertarian movement, geared toward solving problems of small groups of families in isolation, without regard for the greater good. “Local control” is invoked without any context of how that term has been used historically to justify segregation. Those of us trying to make a difference for everybody are derided as playing “politics”.

While I have no doubt that New Harvest will be plenty “liberal”, I have to place it in the greater milieu of the charter school movement. It is indeed a form of privatization, and even if individual schools are “cool”, they are tools used by a movement with a nefarious project: the dismantling of our traditional, neighborhood-based public schools, and the unions that come with them. It bodes poorly for teachers and students alike.

Six Years, $2120 + Three Percent?

by Steve, September 10th, 2007

That’s how I read the maintenance workers’ contract (762 KB PDF) to be voted on by the Portland Public Schools board of education tonight.

The members of the District Council of Unions (DCU) have been without a contract for three years. It looks like they’ve finally squeezed a token raise out of the district, with one-time payments of $1000 and $1120 this year and next, followed by a 1% increase in ’09 and a 2% increase in ’10. Am I reading that right?

If so, the district gave a little over their “final offer” of exactly nothing from earlier this year, and the unions gave a lot.

But to be honest, I’m in the dark on this. None of Portland’s non-union papers does much coverage of collective bargaining negotiations (unless someone is kicking the union out — they’re all over that), so I have no clue if or when this deal was actually struck, if DCU’s rank and file have approved it, or what. It’s being voted on by the board tonight as part of the business agenda, so I assume this has already been offered to the DCU. I’ll let you know what I find out. If you know details, I’d be happy to hear them!

Updated: Headline should read “Seven Years, $2120 + Three Percent?” The contract has been ratified by the rank and file and approved by the board tonight. It is a four-year contract, amounting to about 7%. Considering the DCU has been without a new contract for three years, that’s about 1% a year.

Updated 9/11/07 10:30 p.m.: I almost forgot to mention, Dan Ryan was very gracious after the vote, and thanked the DCU members who testified at the July meeting. He said it really made a difference. Thanks, Dan, for listening to these guys. (I don’t think there were any DCU members were present.)

Food Front Workers Say “Union No!”

by Steve, September 6th, 2007

Wow. Food Front staff actually voted to dump their union.

I’m not surprised as much as disappointed. When I worked there ten years ago, apathy was very high. Many, many employees dragged their feet on joining the union when they were hired (something they could be fired for under the terms of the UFCW Local 555 contract). When I started there, fresh on the heels of a failed Local 555 organizing campaign at Nature’s fresh! Northwest, I took the initiative to try and get folks a little fired up about their union. I organized an election for shop steward. I served as assistant shop steward. I worked with the rep from Local 555 to engage the rank and file and educate them about their rights and responsibilities under their contract.

It was amazing to me that many folks didn’t appreciate the benefit of having collective bargaining in the workplace, especially after we had worked so hard to get representation at Nature’s.

In general, things seemed to work pretty well under contract at Food Front, though many still complained about dues (which local 555 set considerably lower than dues for their mainstream grocery workers). Rank and file staff had access to a real grievance process, which was used in one instance to remove a manager who had harassed women workers with impunity before the contract.

The initial contract was not especially great in terms of pay scale. For whatever reason, the generally non-union natural foods industry has always managed to undercut the wages of the mainstream, unionized grocery stores by a significant margin. So the folks who negotiated the original contract just wanted to get their foot in the door. Hey, they got guaranteed step raises, at least, instead of the ass-kiss-ocracy that was in place before. They figured in two years, we’d have another crack at pay scale.

But management didn’t see it that way. Wages stayed low. Folks moved on (myself included). Without committed people keeping the union engaged, and with turnover at the shop as well as at Local 555, the union started to take this one tiny shop for granted.

So I’m not surprised things fell apart. UFCW Local 555 represents 18,000 workers in Oregon and Southwest Washington; Food Front probably has no more than 50 represented workers (28 voted in the decertification election, which was 20-8 in favor).

I haven’t set foot in Food Front for years. I’m pretty sure some of the same folks are still working there; some of them must be going on 20 years or more. It’s not my place to tell them how to run things, but it’s a shame they couldn’t work it out with UFCW. Then again, maybe the UFCW wasn’t the best choice when they first certified.

Some staff say they will look for another, smaller union to represent them, but now they have to wait a year. I have my doubts, though, given the attitude expressed by employee Stephanie Hawkins about Local 555. “They’re big business. The co-op is the antithesis to that.”

That’s standard anti-union canard. It’s the old “two bosses” lie management likes to trot out when they want to discourage staff from organizing.

The union, of course, is a democratically governed, nonprofit organization which operates for the benefit of its members. The co-op, while not corporate-owned, is not employee-owned either. It is run for profit, and for the benefit of its member owners, not the workers. In my experience working for both corporations and consumer co-ops, both need union representation to give workers a democratic voice in the workplace. Maybe even more in co-ops, where wages are lower, there is less training and fewer standards, and arbitrary discrimination and promotions are the norm.

Hey, while we’re talking about it, anybody want to take a crack at organizing New Season’s? I know all Rohter’s moves. Let me dig up that article I wrote for the Alliance back in ’97 and the newsletter we distributed to all the workers at all the Nature’s locations….

Willy Week Covers the PPS-DCU Contract Dispute

by Steve, July 20th, 2007

(Sort of.)

It’s not exactly breaking news (I covered this a week and a half ago and they’ve been without a new contract for years), and it’s not in the print edition (yet?), but at least the Willamette Week is burning some electrons on the Portland Public Schools contract impasse with the District Council of Unions.

Can’t expect much coverage of labor issues from all the non-union papers in this town, but it’s better than what the O and Trib are doing.

Thanks Beth Slovic for covering both schools and labor in one piece.

Solidarity With the DCU—Call, E-mail or Write Your School Board Today

by Steve, July 9th, 2007

So I went to the Portland Public Schools board meeting tonight, and sat through such things as interim superintendent Ed Schmitt singing praises of all the corporate advertising swag Nike is unloading on our kindergarteners, and human resources big dog Richard Clarke sprinkling his PowerPoint presentation with big-dog words like “systematize”, “preliminarily”, “dialoguing” and “evaluative”. It was Ruth Adkins’ first board meeting, so that was exciting, but the most interesting thing came at the end of the meeting, during the public comment session.

Teacher contract negotiations always get a lot of press, but not so for the skilled blue-collar tradesmen and craftsmen that literally keep our schools running. A dozen members of the District Council of Unions—steam fitters, carpenters, electricians and plumbers—came to plead their case to the board. They spoke movingly about their plight, a plight you will not read about in the Oregonian, the Tribune, the Willamette Week or the Mercury.

Having worked without a contract for over three years, these guys have reached an impasse with the district, which is refusing even a cost of living raise. That’s an effective pay cut over those three years. Final offers were exchanged and rejected on both sides, and a cooling-off period expired in early June.

It’s clear from their testimony that they like their jobs (even though staffing has been cut so severely that the district no longer does preventive maintenance and they’ve basically been doing nothing but emergency repairs for years), and they don’t want to go on strike. But they’re out of options, hence the direct appeal to the school board. Hopefully the board has learned from the debacle of outsourcing custodians, and will lean on their labor relations team to throw these highly-trained, dedicated guys a bone.

They actually seemed to have some support on the board, and I would encourage everybody who gives a rip about working people and the often appalling physical condition of our schools to contact the members of the school board and encourage them to deal with the DCU, offer a stinkin’ cost of living raise, and avert a strike. Considering all the money the district blew buying off Steve Goldschmidt, I don’t think this is too much to ask.

Contact information for the board can be found here.

Happy May Day!

by Steve, May 1st, 2007

Today is a good day to reflect on all the good tidings brought to us by the labor movement. The eight-hour work day. The weekend. Child labor laws.

We should also reflect on the fact that in much of the world, workers do not enjoy these benefits. And let’s not forget that workers’ rights in the US have been under siege over the last few decades, with serious erosion of the right to organize in the work place, as well as in pay and benefits. We work longer hours for less pay than we did 30 years ago, and job security is non-existent.

The gap between obscene salaries paid to CEOs and regular workers just keeps getting wider, and is mirrored by the gap between take-home pay and bills most of us are accustomed to.

So consider this, working people of the world: We are the vast majority of humanity. The wealthiest two percent of the world, the idle rich, cannot control things without our consent (witting or subconscious). The power is ours, but only if we gather our voices in solidarity and cry “ENOUGH!”

Here’s a little history lesson from the IWW on this International Workers’ Day 2007. Have a great day, but take a moment to remember the people who died so that you can enjoy your weekend, send your kids to school instead of the factory, and be home in time for supper.