Contract talks between South Portland, union show little progress

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SOUTH PORTLAND — The South Portland Service Employees Association is stepping up its campaign for public support in contract negotiations that have been going on since May 2017.

Members of the association, which represents 89 bus drivers, custodians, maintenance workers, mechanics and food service employees, have been handing out pins reading “We care. Be fair.” and flyers encouraging residents to ask the School Board and Superintendent Ken Kunin to “settle a fair contract for the SEA employees.”

The union members have not had a pay raise since 2016, which has left them feeling “undervalued” and “demoralized,” SEA President Steven Doherty said.

“Cost-of-living increases,” Doherty said. “… We’re a part of this community … We’re asking for the same pay increases and respect as teachers.”

Most recently, a mediator proposed an agreement the SEA was prepared to bring to members for a vote in June. But members of the School Board balked.

Doherty, who is a custodian, said the association wasn’t “happy” with the proposal, but called it was a “compromise” they were ready to bring to members.

Negotiations are now moving into the fact-finding stage, which will take place Nov. 8 with one person who is neutral, one union representative, and another representing the School Board. They will then present their cases for a settlement and attempt to land on a nonbinding agreement.

Kunin said negotiations that take this long are not unprecedented.

“It could go into binding arbitration,” Kunin added. “But our goal, of course, is always to settle a contract.”

Phil Terrano, a bus driver, said what is unusual about these negotiations is how many changes the board has tried to make in the SEA’s contract.

Terrano said he’s been working for the district and participating in contract negotiations for about 18 years. Typically, he said, the board will try to negotiate 10 changes at most. This time, 53 changes were requested by the board, according to Terrano.

“Those were all self-serving to the district and the board,” Doherty said.

Kunin said he wasn’t sure exactly how many changes were requested, but said the union also made several major financial proposals that were “concerning to the board, especially in this financial climate.”

“I’m not sure if it was 53, but it was quite a few. Some of which we’ve dropped, some we’ve agreed on. Many have not been resolved,” Kunin said. “They’re being proposed because they matter.”

Although Kunin said the board’s major concerns and proposed changes regard clarity in contract language to reduce number of grievances filed by union members.

“We need clear language in the contract and … adjustments to reduce a high number of labor grievances filed in the last few years, which are costly,” Kunin said. “We won’t have that same amount … if we get (this contract) right.”

Doherty said he doesn’t think the contract’s clarity is the issue.

“At one time, both sides agreed to that language,” he said. “… When they say they want clarity, they kind of held us hostage to that.”

In a Sept. 12 email to Doherty, Kunin said the legal expenses for work related to the SEA contract negotiations, mediation and fact-finding have totaled more than $48,600.

“They paid an attorney to sit there from day one,” Doherty said.

“We knew we needed someone there representing us,” Kunin countered.

In addition, almost $50,000, Kunin said, has been spent “administering” the SEA contract, in part by dealing with grievances, employee complaints and “threatened job actions.”

“This is the public’s money,” Doherty said. “And the question I have for them is, is this how you want your elected leaders spending your money? Fighting with your bus drivers, your food service workers, your custodians?”

Bruce Roma, who has worked in the School Department’s maintenance department for 18 years, said recent grievances were related to a decision to deduct balances for vacation time and include bereavement time in employees’ paid sick time.

Kunin said these grievances are due to misinterpretations in the association’s standing contract, which need to be ironed out.

Doherty referenced administrative salaries, which last year increased by an average of 2.5 percent. The director of transportation, assistant director of instructional support and director of buildings and grounds came in over that, with salary increases from fiscal year 2018-19 of 4 percent, 4.3 percent, and 5.8 percent, respectively.

Salary scales from 2016-2017 show service employees are paid $16-$26 an hour, depending on position and longevity.

Doherty said the SEA originally requested a 3 percent salary increase, but that was immediately knocked down to almost 1.25 percent in negotiations.

“We’re public servants, just like the police and fire departments, and we want to be treated the same,” Doherty said. “… I think sometimes because we may not be college-educated that we somehow aren’t intelligent enough to see what’s happening here.”

Kunin said it’s “unfortunate” that the SEA has “taken the approach of finger-pointing.”

“We value our staff. We wouldn’t have spent so many hours on this if we didn’t,” he said. “Labor negotiations are hard, but we’ll get there.”

Jocelyn Van Saun can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 183 or jvansaun@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter @JocelynVanSaun.

South Portland unionized service employees Phil Terrano, left, Bruce Roma and Steven Doherty say they’re fed up with contract negotiations that have been going on since May 2017.

Members of the South Portland SEA, which represents 89 bus drivers, custodians, maintenance workers, mechanics and food service employees, are wearing and distributing buttons reading “We care. Be fair.”

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