Juniors and seniors might recall the yellow Newton Teachers’ Association T-shirts that became a common sight on campus in the spring of 2015. They were hard to miss. Bearing the logo, “competitive wages = excellent schools,” the T-shirts signified an act of union solidarity amid contract negotiations with the School Committee.
Today, while the yellow T-shirts are long gone with the resolution of the contract negotiations, the observant student might notice the occasional blue-and-white button pinned to a teacher’s lapel. The print is fine, but the message on the front says it all: “Newton Custodians: No outsourcing.”
As the call to action on the buttons suggests, the Newton Custodians’ Association is embroiled in a battle not over wages, but over the union’s right to exist at all, according to the Newton Tab and custodians interviewed by The Newtonite. If the School Committee has its way and the work is outsourced, all 80 current custodians could lose their jobs, according to the Tab.
“Every time we get to the table, they do not listen to our suggestions for alternatives to outsourcing,” said Newton Custodians’ Association Head Timothy Curry, who works at Bigelow Middle School. “They want us gone.”
School Committee Chairman Matt Hills said in December, “We have been negotiating publicly with the custodians for approximately two years and have been working with a mediator from the state department of labor relations to try to reach an agreement and have not yet been able to do so. That’s all we’re really able to say right now.”
He added, “As long as we are negotiating, and especially now that we have the help of department of labor, we are going to keep all negotiations private and not respond to accusations.”
“We are looking forward to reaching an agreement that is in the best interest of custodians union, of the school department, and of the entire Newton Public School community,” Hills concluded.
Meanwhile, a report compiled by the Massachusetts Department of Labor Relations confirms that the School Committee has proposed outsourcing in order to “save significant money that, especially given tight budgetary constrictions, could be reinvested for educational purposes and would result in cleaner schools.”
If the School Committee has indeed proposed outsourcing, as the Labor Relations report suggests, then custodians as well as members of the community have reason to worry.
Background & precedents
Tension amid labor negotiations is nothing new for the Newton Public Schools. In fact, back in 2010, the Newton Public Schools outsourced cafeteria work.
According to a 2010 Boston.com article titled, “Newton’s school cafeteria workers fight for their jobs,” Interim Superintendent James Marini had noted, “These are really hard fiscal times. Everyone is looking at every way, shape and form to be as efficient as they can, without compromising the program.”
Curry—who today finds himself at the forefront of the custodial negotiations—had lobbied for the cafeteria staff back when their jobs were in jeopardy. Curry had written in a letter: “These workers, almost exclusively female, have dedicated many years of service to the system and are among the lowest paid workers in the system…. Your children deserve to have someone handling their food who has a strong connection to the community.”
Curry’s calls were not answered, however. The district decided to outsource the work to a company called Whitsons.
While the new company agreed to rehire old cafeteria staff members (all of whom had been laid off), staff members were wary of the deal, according to a 2010 article published in Newton South’s student newspaper.
“Everyone is sad about it,” said South cafeteria manager Linda Cloonan, as quoted in the article. “Basically our lawyer even told us it’s not a good deal; they’ve tried to take care of us as best they could for the next three years, but after that, it’s not going to be a good job for anyone.”
At the time, Clonan expressed concern about the possibility of a much lower wage: “They told me I’m going to get 91 percent of my [current] pay, but from the figures I’ve seen it seems more like 70 or 60,” she explained in the same article in South’s newspaper. “It’s less pay and less hours.”
Today, the School Committee once again argues that outsourcing would save money. According to Curry, “It has been said that they might pick and choose who to bring back” if the work is indeed outsourced.
The custodians’ union has filed 29 charges of unfair treatment against the School Committee, which is why the Massachusetts Department of Labor Relations has become involved as a third party, said Curry.
As the negotiations have progressed, the custodians’ union has offered certain concessions to the School Committee. Most importantly, the union has proposed bringing retired custodians back into the workforce as part-time employees, a measure that would “save money on overtime,” allow for a “fully trained person to come back,” and relieve the School Committee of having to pay benefits to these workers, said Curry.
So far, however, Curry noted the School Committee has not been willing to concede to the custodians’ proposals. He added that the custodians’ union and the School Committee underwent mediation October 19, though nothing new came of the negotiations.
If the verdict favors outsourcing, Curry won’t be the only one in his family to face a layoff at the hand of the Newton Public Schools. His eldest son, a South alumnus, now works as a custodian there himself.
Another South custodian, Ernie Peltier, has been working at the school ever since it was built 57 years ago. Like Curry, he is a Newton resident and has watched his children graduate from South. His son and daughter are now in their late fifties.
Peltier expressed concern for younger colleagues, noting, “Mr. Curry’s got 33 years. Where’s he going to get a job if they outsource?”
North head custodian Timothy Keefe, who has been working here for 43 years, also worries about what lies ahead for his friends and co-workers. Remarking that many custodians are Newton residents, Keefe said, “I think we enjoy this job, try to keep it up as best we can.”
Special education teacher Amy McMahon expressed similar sentiments to those of the custodians when she spoke on their behalf at a School Committee meeting last year. In her speech, McMahon invoked a Martin Luther King quote: “All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance, and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.”
“He was talking about the garbage collectors in Atlanta,” McMahon later added in an interview with the Newtonite, “but I think the same thing applies here. It’s true, all labor matters, and I think if we try to take away the jobs of our custodians… we’re undermining the dignity of those people and saying, ‘your job doesn’t matter here.’”
McMahon continued, “And yes, I know it’s a financial decision. Myself included, everybody feels budgets in his or her job, whether it be for resources or how many students we each have in our caseloads or our classrooms… But I feel that this is an important decision for the lives of all of those people, and if we outsource… That would not be a good choice for our custodians, or our buildings, or our students, or our teachers.”
In a Newton Tab op-ed, Newton Teachers’ Association Head Michael Zilles—who informed McMahon and all other teachers about the custodians’ situation—expressed similar shock over the School Committee’s proposals. He highlighted the irony of Newton’s frugality. “In a city that boasts the state’s second largest number of million-dollar earners, these plans for cost savings are outrageous,” wrote Zilles.
Seniors Ava Waitz and Danae Lally, co-founders of North’s Recycling Club with junior Wendy Li, also wrote a letter to the School Committee about the matter and spoke at the same School Committee meeting as did McMahon.
Having worked closely with Head Custodian Timothy Keefe through their recycling endeavors, the students were deeply concerned when they heard about the possibility of outsourcing. Reflecting on the experience, Waitz noted, “I think [the custodians] are as much a part of the school community as students and faculty. I think a lot of the students would agree that they want these custodians to stay, but I just think people aren’t aware of it.”
Waitz added that she thinks the custodians are being mistreated already. She has heard that “they’re already working with a third of the sized team that they should be for the size of the school,” and that many of the custodians are working overtime. The custodians are also recycling for the first time in the new building, even though recycling is not an official measure of their contract.
McMahon added that as fixtures of the school community, custodians sometimes develop a relationship with “a student or a child who nobody else notices, and they become friends.” Two years ago, for example, students in North’s Pilot program honored a custodian, Bobby Falanga, as one of the most valued adults in their lives. Another custodian, Ronnie Fremault, developed similarly close relationships with members of the school community and won the Ned Rosseter Educator of the Year award.
Concerns about safety
The long-standing relationships between custodians and other members of the school community also help promote safety in the Newton Public Schools, according to Zilles and McMahon.
“Contract custodians would not be a part of these communities, and the schools they work in would be neither as clean nor as safe as they are now,” wrote Zilles in his op-ed.
McMahon, whose daughter graduated from South, also considered the issue from the perspective of a parent.
“I don’t mean to sound alarmist, but if my daughter were in kindergarten again, I wouldn’t want some strange custodian, or a different custodian every day, coming in and out of Countryside [Elementary School],” said McMahon.
She cited Keefe as someone who knows “everyone and everything that goes on in our building” and noted that custodians like him are often the “first line of defense” during school emergencies.
Expectations for the future
Although the negotiations could go on indefinitely, some custodians have already made predictions about what will come next.
Peltier believes that if members of the School Committee go through with outsourcing, they will be disappointed with the result.
“You won’t get a clean school if they outsource,” he noted. “Believe me, most [districts] go back to the regular people after a while.”
Peltier added that the notion of saving money is misleading because new workers will begin with low rates, and then charge the district extra later on.
The School Board of Springfield, Missouri, outsourced custodial work and later decided to reverse the decision.
Curry, who said that the custodians have “one of the best labor attorneys in state” working on their behalf, believes that a verdict is likely to emerge in favor of the custodians.
Peltier, meanwhile, remarked that the “only way we’ll get through this is if people support us.”
“That’s what we need,” he concluded. “Parents have supported us… You kids mean a lot.”