The Persistence of Privatization
When school board members wanted to take away jobs, education support professionals fought back step-by-step.
By John Rosales
Person-by-person, block-by-block, and school-by-school, since spring 2009, about two-dozen custodians from Maine School Administrative District 75 (MSAD 75) have beaten back the lingering threat of privatization.
They have sat with one neighbor at a time, spoken at school board meetings and labor organization events, started a petition drive, generated favorable media support, and handed out countless flyers at public functions. They even persuaded several business owners to hang banners outside storefronts carrying their simple message: “Save our Custodians.”
The tide of solidarity rose so high, the school board finally agreed in September not to subcontract their jobs for the remainder of the calendar year. There’s just one problem: As early as February 2012, they could be back at square one.
“This group of custodians has shown strength and dignity under the threat of losing their jobs,” says Mary Kay Dyer, president of the Merrymeeting Employees Association (MEA), whose 83 members include the 24 custodians whose jobs are threatened. “They have stood together, worked hard, and I think earned the respect of everyone involved. They won’t give up.”
One beacon of hope, she says, is a new superintendent who suggested that the school board postpone arbitration until more research is done. Board members have given the superintendent until February to return with information that will determine whether or not to proceed with the arbitration.
“I am hoping the superintendent and school board see that they have some very loyal and hard-working employees who work, live, shop, worship, and vote in this district,” Dyer says. “You can’t get that from subcontracting, which doesn’t save money in the long run.” The custodians who could still lose their jobs next year have more than 400 years of combined experience working at the high school, middle school, and six elementary schools in the district.
Photo by Kevin Brusie
The four communities that make up the district are more like one village where “everyone is family,” says Barbara Douglas, who has worked at William-Cone Elementary School for 32 years in custodial and maintenance services. “I love this school, the staff and students,” says Douglas. “I would do anything to help them. This will not be the case with a subcontractor. You won’t have the same people here every day.”
Along with food and transportation services, maintenance jobs at schools are the most likely to be privatized. When education support professional (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.
At MSAD 75, Associate UniServ Director Sue Rowe knew the best way to fight the threat of privatization was, in part, to build community support by educating citizens about the contributions ESPs make in the lives of students. “These custodians know the families going back three generations,” she says. “Education is not a business. It’s personal. These are kids we’re dealing with.”
Rowe has been on hand since the first anti-privatization meeting took place more than two years ago. At the meeting, she and MEA leaders immediately went from peacetime organizing to crisis organizing.
Photo by Kevin Brusie
Custodian JoAnn Walker also attended that initial meeting, during which participants began deciding on talking points, identifying allies, and determining other steps necessary for an anti-privatization campaign.
“What has worked for us so far has been fast action on the union’s part,” Walker says. “We have not let the public forget that privatization is still on the table and it is not a good idea.”
The group quickly came up with the slogan, “Keep our SUPER custodians in MSAD 75 schools!” On flyers and posters, an “S” was added at the end of the word “SUPER,” which they turned into an acrostic:
Support staff United with Parents for Excellence and Reliability in our Schools!
Educational technicians, secretaries, clerks, bus drivers, groundskeepers, mechanics, and food service workers also belong to MEA. More than 200 teachers belong to Merrymeeting Teachers Association (MTA), a separate local and bargaining unit, whose members supported the MEA members at every turn. On several occasions, petitions with thousands of signatures were presented to school board members along with letters of support from MTA members, ESPs, parents, and others.
When asked what advice she has for other Associations confronting the threat of privatization, Dyer says that they must be persistent.
“I would tell other members that the battle is long and takes a toll, but that it is worth the fight,” she says.
With an agreement close at hand for the custodians of MSAD 75, Dyer mentions the unquantifiable value of these career ESPs.
“Subcontractors won’t put in the same effort as these people who have 20, 25, and 30 years’ experience,” she says. “These custodians care about the children. That’s one reason they’re fighting so hard.”
JoAnn Walker (right) and Barbara Douglas (rear, left) visit a local car dealer to explain the plight of school custodians.