Philly SRC signs off on contract with blue-collar union

Posted: July 23, 2012

After months of negotiations and protests over possible layoffs to cut costs at the cash-strapped city schools, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission unanimously approved a contract with its blue-collar union Monday that preserves jobs and provides $100 million in savings over the next four years.

Pedro Ramos, chairman of the SRC, praised both the district's negotiators and representatives of Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union for working for months to reach a precedent-setting agreement.

"This is not only a good agreement," Ramos said. "This is a creative agreement."

Terms call for the district's bus drivers, cleaners, and building engineers and other union members to forgo raises totaling 5 percent that they were due under the existing contract. Wages will be frozen for four years, and union members will make weekly contributions of between $5 and $45 - depending on income - to help reduce the district's deficit. The gap could total $282 million this fiscal year.

In return, the deal preserves the jobs of nearly all of the union's 2,700 members, who will enjoy employment security through Aug. 31, 2016.

"This has been a pretty long process," said George Ricchezza, District 1201 leader for 32BJ, adding that it had ended with "the ratification of a contract that I believe will be in the best interest of the School District, the best interest of Local 32BJ, but, more importantly, for the children who go to school."

Ricchezza, whose members had voted earlier to approve the deal, described it as "unprecedented."

After months of rancor, including threats to lay off the entire union workforce, the sides announced July 11 that they had reached a tentative agreement. They withheld the details until union members had approved the terms.

Members voted by mail, and the results were tallied Monday. A union spokeswoman said it was approved by a ratio of 13-1.

Union officials said workers earning $30,000 would contribute $5 each week. Those making between $30,000 and $45,000 - the majority of the union members - will contribute $25 per week. A much smaller number, such as those in the skilled trades, will give back $45 per week.

"Those contributions are pretty substantial for those whom we represent," Ricchezza said. "Taking money out of someone's pocket today isn't easy to do. But our members stepped up and said they were willing to do this."

Thomas Knudsen, the district's chief recovery officer, said the agreement met the objectives he had laid out in January of achieving savings and increasing productivity and efficiency.

He said a committee would be established to use national benchmarks to set standards for school cleanliness. In addition, the agreement calls for establishing partnerships between principals and building engineers to make decisions about work plans and objectives for their buildings.

Union officials said that despite the overall job security, the contract did provide for some layoffs as the district continues to close underused buildings. In addition, the size of the transportation department will be cut 50 positions in 2014 and 25 in 2015.

Any displaced workers will be able to apply for other vacant union positions.

Mayor Nutter said Monday that he was pleased the agreement had been reached.

"I commend the members of SEIU Local 32BJ for placing first the interests of students," he said in a statement. "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.

"But much more work needs to be done by all of the education stakeholders," he said, "if the School Reform Commission is to move toward fiscal stability and its plans to improve public education for all Philadelphia children."

Contact Martha Woodall at 215-854-2789 or

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