Phila. School District blue-collar workers offer concessions

Posted: June 13, 2012

With the clock ticking toward either an agreement or layoffs, leaders of the Philadelphia School District's blue-collar workers' union said Wednesday that they have offered $20 million in concessions but so far have been rebuffed.

Members of 32BJ, the union that represents mechanics, bus attendants, cleaners, and other workers, plan to pack City Council chambers on Thursday, pressuring officials to keep their promise to hold up the district's funding until a deal is cut with 32BJ.

Friday is the deadline set by the district and the union for reaching an agreement. Layoff notices have been issued to every member of 32BJ - nearly 2,700 workers, in all. The first layoffs, about 400, would take effect July 15.

The nearly broke district had been banking on $94 million in new money from the city budget, but in recent days, it appeared that the district's best-case scenario was $85 million - $40 million from property taxes and $45 million from a hike in the use-and-occupancy tax.

But on Wednesday, it appeared that the district might get only $40 million, if that, with the use-and-occupancy tax's prospects of passage slim and some remaining unease over the property tax. Rob Wonderling, president of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, was at City Hall, following up on the chamber's announced opposition to the use-and-occupancy increase.

Bus attendant Melanie Hobbs understands that the district has big financial problems.

"We don't make a lot of money, and they mismanaged their money, and now they're putting it on us," said Hobbs, who has worked for the district for 25 years. The average bus attendant makes $13 an hour and works five hours a day.

32BJ president George Ricchezza said that he has met with district leaders 17 times since February. Two more sessions are scheduled before the deadline.

"We've been talking," Ricchezza said at a news conference held on the steps of the district's North Broad Street headquarters. "We believe that we can get a deal done."

Many of the workers earn less than $20,000, but Ricchezza said he has offered a package of savings, including wage freezes and health and benefit concessions adding up to about $20 million.

That would cost the average worker's paycheck $6,000 to $8,000 a year, Ricchezza said.

"We're millions apart," he said. "We are willing to concede. We are willing to make concessions, but there has to be a bottom line."

Ricchezza said he was "dismayed" by news that School Reform Commission officials had been lobbying in Harrisburg for legislation that would allow them to cancel collective bargaining agreements. Those efforts, first reported in The Inquirer, are dead now, officials said.

"We thought we were talking to the school district in good faith and bargaining, and it turns out we have people behind us trying to dismantle the system rather than negotiate in good faith with us," Ricchezza said.

Ricchezza - who was joined at the news conference by Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan and Michael Lodise, head of the school police officers' union - said he believes the district is attempting to privatize the services its workers provide, a move he said would be bad for public education.

"We cannot turn this system over to private management," Ricchezza said.

The district, which must fill a shortfall of at least $218 million through borrowing in the 2012-13 school year alone, has said it needs to realize $50 million in savings through "modernizing" custodial, maintenance and transportation services.

Gabriel Morgan, the Pennsylvania director for 32BJ SEIU, said the district has a "changing set of numbers" for the dollar amount it needs before a settlement is reached.

Building engineer Ernie Bennett has been a district employee for 26 years. If he loses his job, "it means that I can't feed my family," he said. "It means that I can't pay my mortgage."

District spokesman Fernando Gallard said that officials are working toward a settlement with 32BJ, but that because negotiations are ongoing, he could not comment further.

If the district does not get the full $94 million it has budgeted from the city, it's unclear how it would cope. Officials have said they cannot make more classroom cuts, and it is unlikely the district will be able to borrow much more than it's already planning.

School Reform Commission Chairman Pedro Ramos has called not getting the full $94 million "an unthinkable scenario."


Contact Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146, kgraham@phillynews.com or on Twitter @newskag. Read her blog, "Philly School Files," at www.philly.com/schoolfiles.

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