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Public Education is Not a Commodity to be Outsourced

By Dave Arnold

It began as a peaceful rally in Chicago’s Haymarket Square. Industrial workers were on strike regarding the eight-hour workday. A broad coalition of labor organizations joined in support. Then someone threw a dynamite bomb at police, who responded by firing their weapons at protesters.

What became known as the Haymarket Massacre or Riot took place on May 4, 1886. The bomb blast and ensuing gun violence resulted in the deaths of seven police officers and at least a half dozen civilians. Many more were wounded.

Those workers fought for working conditions many of us take for granted.

Then there is the Battle of Blair Mountain, one of the largest civil uprisings in U.S. history. In 1921 in West Virginia, about 10,000 armed coal miners confronted 3,000 police officials and strikebreakers who were backed by coal mine operators. What did the miners want? To unionize.

The struggle for fair wages and working conditions continues. But instead of coal fields, industrial parks and warehouse grounds, today’s labor disputes generally take place during school board meetings, in court rooms and lawyer’s offices.

This might be one reason that the national media does not cover labor disputes like they use to: Less blood and guts. Still, labor wars are more stealthy and pervasive than most people realize and the movement to privatize public education is at the forefront. 

One of the biggest labor disputes going on today is the outsourcing of ESP jobs. Just a few years ago, for example, subcontractors didn’t want to do business with small schools. Outsourcing, or privatization, has been a threat to larger schools and school districts for decades. But as board members serving in small school districts suffer the effects of budget crunches, contract labor companies smell blood and move in. These privateers try to convince school boards and administrators that the district can save money by letting them manage their transportation, maintenance or food service operations.

Companies like First Student (transportation) and Sodexo (food) usually don’t employ workers with anywhere near the experience, training and dedication of school district employees. Most contractors have a supervisor that has some experience while the rest of the crew are simply run-of-the-mill employees looking for an income. They are just punching a time clock until their next gig. Bottom line: You get what you pay for.

When ESP jobs are transferred to the private sector through the hiring of service companies, ESPs either lose those jobs or are hired back by a subcontractor, typically with lower pay and fewer benefits. After privatization, employees also can lose the benefits of union representation, such as a grievance procedure, health and safety protection, and security against arbitrary treatment on the job.

In my state, the Illinois Education Association was successful in getting legislation passed to help curb outsourcing of ESP jobs. The legislation cannot prevent outsourcing, but it does require contractors to prove they are competent, trustworthy, and pay a decent wage to their employees.

Nationwide, about 75 percent of ESPs live, vote, shop and worship in the same school district where they work. Even more impressive, many attended the school where they work. Essentially, they are known and trusted members of the community.

Whenever I walk into a grocery store or attend church, the people automatically think of me as their child’s or their grandchild’s custodian. I am their neighbor down the block. We have a relationship. I have lived in this community all my life. Do you think this level of familiarity would exist with a contactor? Private companies send strangers into schools to spend the day with the community’s children.

I’m sure that was the same thinking of the people in Camden, Maine. According to an article in the Camden Herald (April 17, 2014), “a huge sigh of relief could be heard coming from the cafeteria at Camden-Rockport Middle School April 16 when the School Administrative District 28 School Board voted unanimously not to outsource custodial services in the district.”

The article quotes Thomas Murphy of Rockport “who simply asked the board’s permission to have the approximately 80 people in attendance stand if they did not support outsourcing at which time 95 percent of the room came to their feet. The board then voted unanimously not to outsource custodial services in SAD 28 and received a standing ovation.”

Haymarket and Blair Mountain were fought to gain the rights that many working people now enjoy. The Haymarket affair is generally considered as the origin of May Day observances for workers across the world.

Today, the good folks in Camden had to prove to the world that public education is not a commodity to be outsourced, marketed or engaged in for profit. Camden showed us something else too: The struggle continues.

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(Dave Arnold, a member of the Illinois Education Association, is a custodian at Brownstown Elementary School in southern Illinois. He can be contacted at darnoldjanitor@yahoo.com.)

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NEA or its affiliates.


Dave Arnold: This school custodian and former Illinois Education Association ESP of the Year is a published poet. But most Association members know him best from the editorials -- Dave's View --