Union files grievance over privatization

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In a controversial move, the School Reform Board fired over 800 custodians in July and privatized cleaning services at some 120 schools.

Now, the custodian’s union has filed a grievance because fired workers who take the privatized jobs will have their hourly wages cut from $11 an hour to $9 an hour—a loss of about $320 per month for a 40-hour week.

Board officials counter that the custodians, who had been classified as day-to-day or substitute workers, will receive health insurance and other benefits they didn’t have as board employees. Those benefits are worth about $4 an hour, bringing total compensation to $13 an hour—$2 more than previously, board officials say.

The board’s contract with Local 46 of the Service Employees International Union states that workers whose jobs are privatized must receive comparable wages and benefits from their new employers, says local President Jarvis Williams. “This sounds like it is comparable, but the arbitrator is going to rule in our favor,” he says.

However, labor lawyer Thomas Gibbons of DePaul University says arbitrators tend to take into account an entire compensation package when deciding such cases.

At budget hearings in July, some audience members blasted the move, criticizing the lower wages and accusing the board of racism; 99 percent of custodial workers are black and 1 percent are Latino, while 30 percent are women, notes Williams.

The venture isn’t saving the board any money, acknowledges Budget Director Chris Hoagland. “We’re doing it to improve service.” Officials are quick to note that the 120 schools volunteered to take part in the venture, which is costing the board about $9 million.

The outside contractors are expected to hire about 550 custodians, and the fired workers are to receive hiring preference, says Bill Purcell of the board’s operations office.

With the board’s new staffing formula, some of the 120 schools could gain or lose custodians. The new formula takes into account the age of the building and how it is used, not just its size, Purcell explains; so, older building, or those that house year-round schools or more after-school programs, will have more workers. The formula was developed by the Boston-based Ogden Facilities Services; previously, the board assigned custodians based solely on school size.

The six contractors selected for the work have done work at City Hall, Chicago Park District facilities and private firms. Williams cautions, however, that cleaning a school building takes more work than cleaning offices. “They won’t clean up to standards,” he says. “If you’re in a downtown office, you pick up paper, clean off your desk, whatever. Kids don’t do that—they leave gum on the floor, whatever.”