School custodian battle continues

by Tom Nash on September 14, 2010

Children entering the new school year have encountered more new faces than usual, with custodians from a private contractor now on the job as the union representing 17 laid off city workers continues its fight against Mayor Joseph Curtatone.

A Nov. 12 hearing by the state’s Labor Relations Board will give those laid off a chance to make the case that Curtatone acted illegally by removing some civil service custodial positions while hiring a private company to the same work as the city grappled with an $8.1 million budget gap in June.

After initially proposing a plan that would lay off all 49 school custodians in the city in favor of a private contractor, Curtatone presented what he called a “hybrid plan” on the night the Board of Aldermen was scheduled to vote on the budget.

The new plan, which Curtatone said came as a result of an impasse with the union, included 28 full-time civil service custodial positions within the school system and 17 lay-offs.

The Waltham-based company AM-PM was given a contract to service the Winter Hill Community School and Somerville High School. Curtatone told the Board of Aldermen the move would save the city approximately $2 million during the next three years.

If the city loses its case before the Labor Relations Board, the custodian’s laid off could be entitled to getting their jobs back, in addition to back pay. SEIU union representative and school custodian Peter Blaikie says the case is strong.

“(The Curtatone Administration) claimed there was an impasse that never occurred,” he said. “They just claimed it so they could implement anything they wanted, stripping the contract and putting it in the shredder. In other words, they said, ‘fight us.’”

Ward 6 Alderman Rebekah Gewirtz, who cited the layoffs when she became the only Board member to vote against the city’s FY2011 budget, said she continues to be concerned the city may end up losing more money than it saved should the Labor Relations Board rule in the union’s favor.

“I don’t think we should be privatizing jobs in the city,” Gewirtz said. “In bad times you can do without if you have to.Once you outsource to a private company, those jobs aren’t coming back. I don’t think that’s the direction the city should be going in.”

City spokesman Michael Meehan would not directly address the assertion that Curtatone’s actions were illegal, but said the administration worked hard to flesh out a new deal after proposing all the school custodians be laid off.

“We did everything we could to keep as many school custodians as we could with the city,” Meehan said. “We negotiated right up until the bitter end.”

“There was never any point when we walked away from the table and told them to accept whatever it was we were proposing,” he added. “We went above and beyond the call to get that deal done.”

Meanwhile, Blaikie says the new relationship between the remaining city employees and AM-PM has been rocky so far.

In addition to writing more than 60 grievances for fellow custodians during the past two months, Blaikie said AM-PM employees had begun cutting the grass at schools other than those stipulated in their contract.

Meehan said the issue has been resolved.

“We sat down with them, [and] they were correct that it wasn’t supposed to be AM-PM, so we agreed with them on that,” he said. “It was definitely not AM-PM’s job to do in that particular case.”

AM-PM did not respond to a request for comment.

While Meehan said he hoped “both sides could sit down” to work out issues such as who should be cutting the grass at which school, both sides are waiting for the state’s Labor Relations Board to decide the issue of whether the city acted illegally by hiring a contractor to fill civil service positions.

“We’re very confident,” Blaikie said. “The mayor really made a huge mistake when he declared an impasse. That process takes months, and the mayor just said ‘I’m doing it.’”

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Sara September 15, 2010 at 9:40 AM

Wow, what a mess.

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