Photo depicting members of IUOE Local 302 protesting with yellow-and-black signs that read, "United We Bargain; Divided We Beg" outside of the John Stanford Center for Educational Excellence.

Contract for Seattle Public Schools’ Support Staff Expired Thursday, Casting a Pall Over the Start of the School Year

by Ari Robin McKenna

Ongoing negotiations between Seattle Public Schools (SPS) and IUOE Local 302 — the union representing custodial staff, culinary services, school grounds crews, and security workers — could potentially threaten the start of the 2023–2024 school year.

On the eve of their expiring contract, the following members of the IUOE bargaining team addressed the SPS board, superintendent, and district staff at Wednesday’s school board meeting: Jennifer Bentz, who is a ground crew lead in North Seattle; Nancy Buran, a culinary service worker at Queen Anne Elementary; Gary A. Ladd Jr., a former special education instructional assistant (IA) and current security specialist at Rainier Beach High School; and Brett Gambol, a custodial engineer at Highland Park Elementary School.

They read from a statement saying they had been negotiating a fair contract all spring and summer and only last Wednesday received their first economic proposal from the district which “was nothing more than a mandatory minimum percentage increase of IPD [implicit price deflator] for two years.”

Buran said, “We then had to beg and plead for an explanation as to the ‘why’ behind such a disrespectful offer. The district’s response was to share a school board budget presentation given on May 10, 2023, as to the rationale and ‘why’ there is nothing more to give to our members.”

“Our members, who have prepared and passed out millions of meals to our community during the pandemic. Our members, who cleaned and scrubbed high-touch areas, biohazards, toilets, and operated boilers to keep the students and staff warm and safe. Our members, who have broken up fights and been been first responders — putting their own lives at risk at times. Our members who have trimmed, mowed, planted, and weeded to keep our properties looking respectable while exposed to the elements of extreme temperatures — both hot and cold. We were told at the table that the district could operate without us. Without us,” Buran gestured to fellow union members seated in the room. “Our contract expires tomorrow; we will continue to be good labor partners, right up until the day we’re not.”

Brett Gambol, Highland Park Elementary custodian and IUOE Local 302 member, addresses the Seattle Public Schools board from the lectern. Some board members said they were unaware of the status of negotiations with the union representing 400 school support staff. (Photo: Ari Robin McKenna)

SPS school board members did not seem up-to-date on how bargaining with IUOE was going. District 3 Board Member Chandra Hampson said, “We have been missing some updates on the process of how bargaining is going.” District 6 Board Member Leslie Harris asked, “Please tell me why I have to find out about this in the grocery store,” before asking SPS’ Director of Labor Relations Tina Meade “why we [the school board] haven’t been kept apprised.”

Meade replied that she started in her current role last August, taking over for a predecessor who had already begun bargaining with IUOE Local 302 as of last spring. Meade said that she hadn’t been briefed that updating the board was part of her role.

“I wasn’t provided any information about providing updates to the board,” Meade said. “I would defer to my supervisor, Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources [Sarah Pritchett], and if necessary, providing [sic] any updates. I would go through her as necessary, and answer any questions that she may have asked of me.”

In answer to another board question, Meade specified that the eventual collective bargaining agreement (CBA) will be retroactive, specifying that the district’s current wage increase proposal is 6.6% for 2022–2023 “for active union employees upon date of union ratification,” and a 4.7% increase is on the table for the 2023–2024 school year. The implicit price deflator (IPD) — which addresses inflation much like a cost-of-living adjustment — is currently at 5.5% for 2022–2023, and 3.7% for the 2023–2024 school year.

SPS released the following statement on negotiations:

“Seattle Public Schools (SPS) values the hard work of our staff. We continue to make progress in the negotiation with our labor partners in Local 302 International Union of Operating Engineers. Bargaining teams have been working hard this summer to achieve the new 302 collective bargaining agreement for our valued custodians, culinary services, grounds, security and alarm monitor teams.

“SPS anticipates beginning an excellent school year on time on Sept. 6, 2023.”

Julian Herrera, a Rainier Beach resident with a child heading into first grade at South Shore PK-8, says he was “blindsided” to “find out that this school year there’s yet another contract that hasn’t been signed yet.”

“Last year was very jarring for us to start kindergarten and not know exactly when we were gonna start,” Herrera said. “But I feel like last year we had a little bit of a heads up on that.”

A building engineer in a downtown high-rise, Herrera is aware of how easy it is to overlook certain types of essential work.

“As somebody who runs buildings, I feel like there’s significant institutional knowledge that the hands-on workers have. It’s hard to recover that sort of information … If other people are going to try and swoop in to do those jobs, I think things would fall apart pretty quickly.”

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