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Labor Dispute in East Greenwich Could Impact RI Schools

Friday, June 25, 2010

 

The East Greenwich School District is firing all 19 of its janitors and rehiring them through a private company, in a controversial move that both opponents and supporters said could set a precedent for schools across the state.

The school committee last night voted 4 to 3 to outsource its janitorial services to SSC Services Solutions, a Tennessee-based company—over the vehement protests of a room of about 100 supporters of the janitors (pictured below right). It is the first school district in the state to privatize its janitors, according to school committee chairwoman Jean Ann Guliano, who is a Moderate Party candidate for lieutenant governor (pictured left).

The local custodial union president accused the committee of picking on janitors. “We’re the little fish—we’re the tail on the little fish. We’re peanuts compared to their budget,” said Robert Diiorio. “I guess we’re an easy target.”

But Guliano said the move was a necessary to save the district $300,000 next year and a total of $780,000 over three years.

Those at the opposite ends of the issue agreed on one thing yesterday—the new approach to saving money could spread to other districts around the state. “The strategy is … throw everything at the wall and see what sticks,” said Peter Asen, executive director of Ocean State Action. “If they see something that works, they’re going to do it.”

Comparisons to Central Falls

The confrontation between the East Greenwich School Committee and the union drew comparisons to Central Falls and East Providence. Earlier this year, Central Falls fired all of its high school teachers—over a disagreement on how to reform the school—and then hired them back. East Providence unilaterally passed a 5-percent pay cut and 20-percent health insurance co-share on its teachers.

“The common thread is the economics,” Guliano said. She pointed out that school committees don’t determine how much they get in revenue—that is determined by the local town or city council. “We tried to do everything we possibly could to save money and we are still losing money. I don’t think school districts have a choice.”

Guliano said other districts had contacted East Greenwich to get more information about their contract with SSC Services Solutions, which was recently bought by Compass Group North America.

The money-saving measure would help the district chip away at an estimated $1.5 million it has to cut from its budget next year if the town level funds its budget, according to Guliano. She said the district chose to revamp its janitorial services rather than eliminate three teaching positions in the district. And she warned that further layoffs may still be needed.

Diiorio said he had found a way to save $262,000 in other areas of the budget, but Guliano said his proposal was not feasible because it involved administrative positions.

The budget for the current year is $32 million.

District Divides over Plan

The new contract under SSC Services Solutions would be a raw deal for the janitors, according to Diiorio. He said their pay would be cut by about $6,000 and they would have to contribute about $6,000 more in health care costs. About a third of the janitors live in East Greenwich and would have to move out if they accepted the deal.

“It’s going to affect 19 employees’ lives,” Diiorio said. “When you go to their spouses and children, that affects 46 lives.”

Diiorio also accused Guliano of acting on political motives, since she is a candidate for lieutenant governor—a charge she flatly denied. “I can’t imagine anyone would think this was politically motivated,” she said. “I have taken so much heat on this personally."

Diiorio predicted that none of the janitors would agree to work for SSC Services Solutions—news that Guliano said was saddening to her. She said the school committee had guaranteed that the company would be able to hire back all 19 janitors. “This wasn’t easy, but I believe I’m doing my duty and I’m doing the right thing for the students of East Greenwich,” Guliano said.

But the audience at the school board meeting last night wasn’t buying it, as one after another speaker hammered at the school committee for what speakers described as an immoral and unnecessary act. John Leidecker, an NEA spokesman for the union, denounced it as “economic violence.”

“I hope you can live with yourselves,” he added.

“Who are you going to go after next?” asked one middle school teacher. “Are you going to go after the secretaries next? Are you going to go after the aides to the teachers in the classroom? Are you going to go after the teachers? Where does it end?”

The issue is far from over. Leidecker said the union would file an injunction in Kent County Superior Court and he warned the school committee that SSC Services Solutions could respond with a lawsuit. The union also has filed five unfair labor charges with the State Labor Relations Board.

 

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