Janitors face privatization in R.I.

By Andrew Wasser

EAST GREENWICH, R.I.--Nineteen workers on the janitorial staff of the public schools here are facing unemployment after the East Greenwich School Committee voted in favor of a privatization plan.

But this attack on union workers didn't happen without a fight. Hundreds of people confronted the committee at successive meetings in June--and made it clear that school officials were acting in defiance of students, teachers and workers, and the community.

The first sign of the privatization plan came at a June 7 meeting of the committee, where members voted by a 4-3 margin. In the audience for the meeting was a student working on a "good citizenship" project--the son of Robert DiIorio, president of the custodial union. He was the first in his family to find out that his father would be getting a $6,000 pay cut and a $6,000 increase in health insurance costs.

The committee was scheduled to finalize its decision on June 22. When members learned that a protest was being organized, they pushed the vote back to a June 24 meeting--but the protest happened anyway.

The committee tried to hold an executive meeting that is usually closed to the public, but union members and concerned citizens took over the room, making speeches and challenging the committee members to defend their action.

When it became clear that the committee was no longer listening, citizens turned the room's podium around, and Dale Sheldon, a wife of a janitor, told how her son would no longer receive support from the new insurance plan for a condition that is life-threatening.

After this, the School Committee Chair Jean Ann Guliano--who is a candidate for lieutenant governor in Rhode Island in November--ordered the meeting reconvened in executive session in library down the hall. Four police officers escorted committee members down the hall, while a crowd surrounded them, chanting "Hey, hey, ho, ho! Subcontracting has got to go!"

When the committee ended its executive session, it returned to the gymnasium, which was overflowing with people supporting the janitorial staff and waiting to give testimony on the privatization issue.

Pamela Mercurio Mateer, a first-grade teacher, gave a speech reminding the committee that they were going against every principle taught in the first grade curriculum if they voted for the privatization contract. John Leidecker, a union representative, called the contract "economic violence." Another teacher testified that one final projects for her students was to highlight someone who is important to the community--three students chose the janitor at their school.

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FOR THE meeting on June 24, where the final vote on privatization was to be held, a crowd of around 100 people gathered early. The school committee again met in executive session, and supporters of the janitors waited in the gymnasium. After 15 minutes of waiting in the gym, the committee reportedly ordered a janitor to turn off the air conditioning.

Nevertheless, when the school committee came out after two hours of negotiations over the details of the contract, a public comment period was again held, and not a single voice spoke in support of the outsourcing.

The new contract allowed for the hiring of all current janitors, but at a $10,000-a-year pay cut, which would have put workers below the poverty level. Robert DiIorio announced that not a single current janitor would sign on with the new contract to thunderous applause. John Leidecker stated that the union would go to court to get an injunction against the committee.

When School Committee members spoke, Deidre Gifford criticized the outsourcing plan, saying, "We have chosen a relatively small financial gain...over our obligation to serve as a fair and responsible employer."

Bob Durant was the only committee member who spoke in favor of outsourcing, "I think it is in the best interest of the taxpayers of East Greenwich" was his excuse.

The vote came fast, and the outsourcing was pushed through by the same 4-3 margin.

The committee's decision came the same day that 29 teachers in East Providence found out that they were out of a job. Earlier in the year, teachers at Central Falls High School were notified that they would all be laid off and had to interview to get their jobs back.

Rhode Island is leading the way in the race to the bottom--and will continue to do so if the attacks on workers continue at this pace.