Fighting Privatization in Court and at the Ballot Box
After Michigan support professionals are fired due to privatization, the state Association sues the school district while the ESP president runs for the school board. Both win.
By John Rosales
For the last nine years, Paul Mayers has served as president of the Durand Education Support Personnel Association (DESPA) in Michigan with a deep ambition to prod district officials to improve schools. For 15 years, the custodian has worked for Durand Area Schools and as a youth director at two churches.
He’s also known in Durand — a small rural town nestled between the cities of Flint and Lansing — as a frequent attendee of school board meetings.
Photo by: Karen Schulz/MEA
“I’ve been to a lot of meetings over the years,” says Mayers, 47. “I’ve even sat at the table during work sessions because I was the only (non-board member) there.”
That changed momentarily last November after Mayers and the bargaining team negotiated a new contract with district officials. In an unusual turn of events, district officials ratified the contract then abruptly voted to privatize 22 custodial and food service jobs, including Mayers’.
“I felt betrayed,” he says. “I had just finished negotiating with them and they voted to privatize us.”
The district kept bus drivers under contract while giving the fired workers 30 days' notice. In another bizarre twist, the district offered to rehire the fired ESPs under the auspices of the outsourcing company, PCMI. Same jobs. Same hours. But fewer benefits, no insurance, and zero job security. The ESPs were not happy.
“Right after that, people approached me to run for the school board,” Mayers says. “I had experience campaigning for others, but I couldn’t run as a school employee because of a conflict of interest.”
Without any conflicts and with the same burning desire to prod district officials, Mayers ran for a school board seat last May and was elected to a three-year term with almost 65 percent of the vote.
“It will be a change for me to be an actual member of the board instead of a citizen attending meetings,” says Mayers.
His election sends a clear message that the public does not want private, for-profit companies in schools, says Iris Salters, president of the Michigan Education Association (MEA).
“It’s a victory for school employees, but also for the thousands of students who benefit from Mayers’ commitment to them and their future,” she says. “He has a stake in what happens in Durand and is willing to invest his time and energy in making the school district the best it can be.”
MEA also responded to the district’s privatization fiasco. They sued, alleging that the district did not bargain in good faith when it ratified their contract and then privatized two-thirds of the unit at the same board meeting. The union also alleged that the school district and PCMI were joint employers and as such, the district was bound to follow the contract that it had ratified. MEA won its case: The district paid the 22 employees about $60,000 as a settlement.
“Privatization puts profits ahead of students,” Salters says. “None of the companies that come in and take over custodial, maintenance or food service operations has any reason to be concerned with what’s best for students — they are concerned only with making as much money as they can.”
Despite the win in court, the privatization battle isn’t over. The ESPs may have gotten their old jobs back, but they remain privatized employees who have lost holiday and vacation pay, health and retirement benefits. Under the old contract, ESPs also received 12 annual sick days — cut back to 10 — which they could accumulate. Mayers had accumulated 70.
“I lost those,” says Mayers, still a dues-paying MEA member (on leave).
They also lost one other less tangible component to their jobs: pride.
“Before, we took pride in our work and thought we were appreciated,” Mayers says. “Now, even teachers with contracts don’t feel appreciated. They know that if the district could fire us, they can do something similar to them.”
Below: Paul Mayers speaks at a June 24th rally in Lansing, Michigan.