In the midst of the ongoing Portland Public Schools (PPS) teachers strike, two other unions representing school employees have filed for mediation with the district. The decision comes after months of failed bargaining between the district and non-teacher school employees, and demonstrates how PPS' labor relations turmoil extends far beyond its educators' union.
Last Friday, November 3, workers from SEIU 503 and Portland Federation of School Professionals (PFSP), both separately sent the Oregon Employment Relations Board a request for mediation. SEIU 503 represents PPS nutrition services and custodial workers, while PFSP is the union for employees including administrative staff and paraprofessionals (who work alongside teachers and librarians in the classroom). The move represents an escalation in the bargaining process and enables the parties to access outside assistance to reach an agreement. If an agreement is not reached, mediation marks the first step to a potential strike.
PPS employees from both SEIU and PFSP have been working on expired labor contracts since the end of June, and union members report "a lack of meaningful progress at the bargaining table." Together, the two unions represent more than 2,000 PPS employees.
A primary issue for members of SEIU and PFSP is pay. SEIU bargaining team members report most PPS cafeteria staff earn less than $24,000 a year.
"Custodians and nutrition service workers keep PPS school children safe and healthy at school, but low wages fuel high turnover rates," a statement from SEIU reads. "Insufficient staffing of both Nutrition Services and Custodians impacts children in the classroom and during lunch, as Nutrition Service workers struggle to ensure that all are fed."
PFSP workers also report inadequate pay. A statement from the union said nearly half of PFSP members had to work second or third jobs to afford their basic needs.
Last week, workers from PFSP also filed a grievance against PPS, claiming the district is asking paraeducators, library assistants, and educational assistants to perform work outside of their contract while teachers are on strike.
While the request for mediation brings workers from SEIU and PFSP closer to a potential strike, additional PPS strikes are not a foregone conclusion—at least not in the immediate future. The Portland Association of Teachers (PAT) union first requested mediation in June, going on strike about five months later on November 1. However, it is likely to add increased pressure on PPS leadership as they continue to stand at an impasse with the teachers' union.
PPS Director of Media Relations Valerie Feder told the Mercury the district's bargaining ground rules with both SEIU and PFSP prohibit either party from making press releases without warning.
"PPS values all of our employees and respects our obligations to bargain in good faith under Oregon’s public sector labor laws," Feder wrote in an email. "We will continue to do our best to balance the important interests of all our employees with our responsibility to maintain a sustainable budget."
In the meantime, bargaining between PPS and PAT in the coming days may fall victim to an administrative snag: A state mediator isn't available for their contract talks Wednesday, November 8 and Thursday, November 9. Without an interim facilitator to keep bargaining going, talks will have to wait until the end of the week.