GROTON — The union representing nearly 20 custodial workers slated to lose their jobs with the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District is seeking legal action against the district for allegedly failing to bargain in good faith.
International Union of Operating Engineers Local 877 filed charges with the state Department of Labor Relations alleging that the School Committee didn’t negotiate when making the decision to outsource custodial work and that it didn’t have the legal right to seek other service options while the union’s contract is valid.
“We’re trying to do our best to keep the workers in their jobs,” said Patrick Daly, a union business agent that was part of negotiations with the School Committee.
The School District informed the union of its intent to privatize on May 2.
About three weeks later, it awarded S.J. Services of Danvers, which cleans other schools in New England, a two-year contract to begin July 1, the day after the union’s contract ends.
The union has had contracts with the district going back to the late 1980s, Daly said.
Privatizing custodial services was a difficult decision to make, said School Committee Chair Marlena Gilbert, but it helped the district reallocate resources to meet educational needs for students.
“The School Committee’s goal continues to be providing the best possible educational opportunities to our students within our financial limitations,” she said in a statement. “We believe that the decision advances that goal.”
The union alleges the district did not bargain in good faith because it did not call for negotiations specifically to discuss outsourcing.
It also does not agree with Groton-Dunstable that both parties exhausted the negotiation process about contracting out custodial work.
“In fact, the parties never entered into a negotiation process over a purported decision to subcontract out the custodial services,” the complaint states.
Groton-Dunstable allegedly violated the union’s collective bargaining agreement about seeking outside services to perform custodial work by putting out a request for proposals to vendors.
S.J. Services proposed to clean and maintain the district’s seven school buildings for under $860,000 for the first year. It asked for a $2.61 million contract for three years of work.
Snow removal, landscaping, and weekend building opening were proposed with hourly costs.
The district planned to use that proposal and pricing to compare with what the union had to offer during negotiations.
Current work from the union costs about $200,000 more than services proposed from a vendor, according to the School Committee.
During meetings, the union proposed to take no salary increases, use part-time employees who wouldn’t be eligible for insurance benefits, and to let its current collective bargaining agreement run two more years to help save money, but the School Committee did not accept the offers.
“Given the disparity between the potential cost savings from privatizing custodial services and the cost structure of the existing staff, even with the offered concessions, the savings are too significant to ignore,” Superintendent Laura Chesson wrote in the letter informing the union about the change provided to the Nashoba Valley Voice.
She declined to comment further.
Custodian Michael Guillemette, who works the night shift at Groton-Dunstable Regional High School, has gotten to know students, teachers, and the principal over the past year working there. He sees the school more as a family than a workplace.
Last week he received a letter from the district that June 30 will be his last day.
“I worked very hard to get the job and I thought had a good position here,” Guillemette said. “I feel blindsided.”
Some school districts in the area that pursued privatized custodial work have been met with challenges.
Chelmsford Public Schools first outsourced janitorial work to Aramark Education Services 2011.
After employee thefts, high job turnover, and dissatisfaction with cleanliness, the district ended its contract with Aramark in favor of a hybrid model with in-district custodians and contracted vendors.
S.J. Services currently cleans Chelmsford’s middle schools.
In Leominster, the school district laid off nearly 30 union custodians last year because of budget cuts and outsourced cleaning to Emerald Green Building Services.
Sanitary concerns about improperly cleaned bathrooms, unemptied trash cans, and lack of custodial staff were reported at the beginning of the 2017 school year. Several months later, the district hired back the union custodial staff.
Emerald Green’s parent company, The Durkin Co. of Billerica, filed a lawsuit against the city in Middlesex Superior Court alleging a breached contract and misrepresentation of the city’s ability to honor the agreement.
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