From “Stronger Communities. A Better Bargain”:
We Protected Our Schools During Crisis, Protect Us with Collective Bargaining Rights
By Tyrone McCutchen, Gloria Deyo, and Jacquline S. Howell
KEY QUOTE: We are invisible front-line workers during this health crisis. And we need our governor and legislators to protect us the way we protect our students and our schools.
We are proud custodians for Alexandria City Public Schools. We, along with security officers, cafeteria staff, and the engineering and maintenance team, continued to report to work for weeks after March 16, when schools were shut down due to the mounting coronavirus threat.
Many of us are considered essential employees; as such, we are expected to work through difficult situations. However, until the coronavirus, those difficult situations were things like snowstorms and excessive heat events. Our normal operating procedures did not account for a viral pandemic. And we had only minimal protections through our union, because in the Commonwealth of Virginia, workers like us don’t have collective bargaining rights. (Virginia is one of only three states to deny all its public-sector workers the freedom to collectively bargain).
Between March 16 and April 1, when we were still being asked to report to work, we put ourselves and our families at risk every time we entered schools that were still being accessed by contractors and employees. In fact, a custodian that we worked with in this time period is hospitalized with Covid-19. We took these risks because schools needed to be maintained and disinfected. Students who rely on free or reduced lunch needed to be fed.
We are invisible front-line workers during this health crisis. And we need our governor and legislators to protect us the way we protect our students and our schools.
In the coming weeks or months — no one really knows how long — as the health crisis fades and the economic crisis becomes more prominent, the same employees who helped our schools get through this difficult period will once again be the most at risk.
Due to the oncoming recession, school tax revenues are certain to drop by some amount next school year. It will likely be our jobs that are offered up first for cost savings and privatization. Though we take great pride in serving our schools and would take a bullet for our students in the event of a mass shooting, we are still perceived as the expendable bottom rung.
This isn’t our imagination. Last year, our school district’s administrators attempted to privatize 30 custodian positions. Most of the custodians are members of the Education Association of Alexandria. Though we put up a fight, our union’s power was limited because unions in Virginia don’t have collective bargaining rights. We have an informal “meet and confer” arrangement in which union leaders meet with the school’s administration to discuss and work out problems. It works pretty well most of the time; however, our school administrators are not legally obligated to meet with us. And if we were to disagree on a solution, they alone have the power to make the final decision.
If we had had collective bargaining rights, we would have helped craft a fair attrition plan for Alexandria custodians. Instead, our superintendent and school board imposed a solution that still privatized some of the custodian positions. Now, with our economy in a precarious state, we feel particularly at-risk of losing our health insurance and our livelihoods. With collective bargaining, we would at least have a seat and a voice at the table when those decisions are being made.
But collective bargaining is about much more than fair personnel decisions. It’s also about ensuring that we have safe working conditions and the appropriate tools to keep the facilities sanitary for students, teachers, parents, and support staff. We want to have the best equipment and training to keep our facilities top-notch. We care about the health of every person who enters our buildings. With collective bargaining, we can secure contract provisions that will allow us to be more efficient and effective at our jobs.
Right now, Governor Ralph Northam is considering whether or not to sign a bill that will allow localities and school boards to opt-in to giving their employees the freedom to collectively bargain. H.B. 582/S.B. 939 passed both chambers of the General Assembly. Now, anti-worker forces that oppose this legislation anyway are using the pandemic as an excuse to try to convince the governor to delay its implementation.
School custodians like us are the first line of defense for the health of our schools — not an expendable bottom-rung. We need a seat at the table now and not a year from now. We respectfully call on Gov. Northam to stand up for us, the folks who have risked it all to keep the community safe during this unprecedented pandemic, by signing the collective bargaining rights law. We will get through this crisis by working together and looking out for each other. Please show that you value all school employees by giving us a pathway to a meaningful voice at work.
Tyrone McCutchen, Gloria Deyo, and Jacquline S. Howell are custodians in the Alexandria City Public School system.
Authorized by “Stronger Communities. A Better Bargain”, a coalition comprising Virginia AFL-CIO; The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME); The American Federation of Teachers (AFT); The Communications Workers of America (CWA); Service Employees International Union (SEIU); Virginia Education Association (VEA); The Virginia Professional Fire Fighters (VPFF) and The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 400.