With the possibility of a work stoppage that had the potential to disrupt school operations in the fall – and perhaps render thousands of workers unemployed in the process – the School District of Philadelphia and local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union reached a contract agreement that extends through August 2016.
In the end, district officials and union leadership recognized they need each other, especially in the face of the School Reform Commission’s attempts to close a budget gap for the coming school year that is approaching $300 million — and its requests for givebacks from its second-largest union.
The union represents 2,700 non-teaching district employees.
“This was a difficult process, but we came together because we are committed to our kids and our schools. The members of 32BJ SEIU recognize the dire crisis of public education, locally and nationally, and are stepping up to the plate to make real, difficult contributions for the good of Philadelphia’s public school students,” said SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos. “We appreciate their partnership, and especially look forward to working with them to find new, more effective ways to improve the climate in our schools with new cleaning standards and practices.”
The district, through austerity measures imposed by Chief Reform Officer Thomas Knudsen’s five-year Blueprint for Transforming Philadelphia’s Public Schools, had intended to save $156 through cuts to its personnel budget, which effectively restructured both the benefits program and wage costs.
The union seems to have acquiesced to the district’s demands, as this new contract will include more than $100 million in contributions going from the union to the district. The union has agreed to a number of concessions, including member pay-ins to the district ranging from $5 to $45, depending on each member’s income. According to the union, most of its members earn less than $40,000 annually.
The most significant concession made by the union could be its decision to forego planned wage increases and raises, while freezing all new salaries during the life of the contract. Further, the contract doesn’t provide for layoffs as the district looks to further streamline operations and shutter several obsolete, dangerous or failing schools.
There is also an infrastructure-related component included in the new contract, as it calls for the district to implement national standards of school cleanliness while giving principals more authority to partner with building engineers in regard to the upkeep and maintenance of their schools.
“It was a difficult process, but we are committed to work together over the next four years to support the fight for public education and to ensure the safety of our children,” said George Ricchezza, District 1201 Leader for 32BJ SEIU. “We are proud to be a part of the system, and we want to work with the district to try to close the budget shortfall.
“I am pleased to say that thousands of hard-working men and women who provide Philadelphia school children with a safe, clean, learning environment will still have a paycheck to help them pay the bills and support their families,” Ricchezza continued. “These are very real sacrifices for our children and schools — most blue collar school workers live in communities already reeling from high unemployment. Their salaries alone contribute almost 100 million per year to Philadelphia’s economy.”
Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, who has both fought for funding through the establishment of the Actual Value Initiative and for the district to implement stiff measures to get a handle on its budget, is pleased by the consummation.
“I am pleased that the union reached an agreement with the School District. I commend the members of SEIU Local 32BJ for placing first the interests of students. By making necessary changes that bring us closer to fiscal stability at the School District, the membership has done its part in working toward the implementation of a very difficult shared sacrifice plan,” Nutter said in a statement released by his office moments after the deal was announced. “But much more work needs to be done by all of the education stakeholders, if the School Reform Commission is to move toward fiscal stability and its plans to improve public education for all Philadelphia children.”