Education Support Professionals Organize For Workplace Justice

school custodiansIn September 2014, a group of custodians with the Southside Education Association (SEA) in San Antonio, Texas, upended the order of their school district. After issuing a grievance and letter of no confidence to officials with the Southside Independent School District, SEA members would soon close a shameful chapter in the district’s history. But it wasn’t easy.

“There were a lot of arbitrary decisions being made to include involuntary transfers, work assignments, overtime, interviews and supervision of the custodial staff,” says Paty Marquez, an organizational development specialist with the Texas State Teachers Association (TSTA). “Depending on who you were and how the wind blew was how many workplace decisions were made.”

Disreputable practices by some district supervisors included favoritism, custodians being involuntarily transferred for capricious reasons, scheduling issues, supply requisitions not being processed, supplies not being ordered, retaliation against those who expressed their opinions, and a supervisor’s abuse of power.

“The complaints piled up and evolved into an organizing issue,” says Marquez, who worked with the custodians and SEA on the case. “The custodians did not understand personnel procedures at the time … procedures that most districts have and that make sense in order to have a smooth running department.”

With SEA and TSTA staff behind them, the custodians proved to be fast learners who were soon documenting instances and events at school they believed to be ethical violations or injustices.

“Leaders within our local held meetings with the custodians, trained a couple of custodians to be leaders, and then trained them how to document events,” says SEA President Susan Richardson. “With the notes, we consistently requested meetings with the administration to show them examples of wrongdoing, as well as filing grievances.”

Typical among education support professionals (ESPs) nationwide, most of the SEA custodians work as well as live, vote, worship, and shop in the same school district. They are deeply embedded in their neighborhoods and familiar with students and parents on and off campus.

“The threat of having the grievances brought before the board was one that the administration wasn’t willing to risk,” says Richardson, a science teacher at Losoya Intermediate School. “During the documentation process, we were able to build a leadership pipeline within the custodial ranks, build confidence, and build our membership.”

Southside custodians would soon get organized, rally, and win the type of common sense working procedures found in many school districts. By May 2015, TSTA and SEA organizers helped to form the Custodial Handbook Committee, which included SEA custodial members Maria Cardenas, Sylvia Meredith and Michelle Schulmeier, two school principals, representatives from the district’s human resources department, and Marquez.

They proceeded to create a new template for how each of the district’s nine schools should address workplace procedures and personnel issues for custodians. By the end of June, the Southside Independent School District Custodial Personnel Handbook came off the presses in two versions: English and Spanish. Many of the district’s 60 custodians are bilingual with Spanish as their first language.

In July, its policies went into effect and the 21-page booklet was distributed across the district. Some of the highlights include:

• Custodial Work Assignments and Supervision: Custodians will work with head custodians and be supervised by campus principals.
• Holiday and Summer Schedule: Custodians will now stay at their assigned campuses during holidays and summers and will be asked if they can help as needed.
• Vacancies: These will be posted internally then externally with seniority being taken into consideration.
• Interview Committee: Includes custodial manager, head custodian and principal with standard questions and all interview questions kept on file.
• Transfers: Only when needed and with proper documentation by supervisor to be presented to the superintendent for approval.
• District Seniority List: SISD will maintain a district seniority list and use it when hiring internally.
• Progressive Discipline: First, verbal counseling/coaching. Second, verbal warning. Third, written warning with a possible suspension then demotion. Fourth, termination.
• Reopening custodial positions and shifts.
• Based on seniority, custodians are able to pick a work location and shift.
• Overtime hours are now assigned by campus and by seniority with a bidding rotating schedule each time overtime becomes available. The campus’ head custodian handles this procedure.

“Employees feel like they have a voice,” says Kim Martinic, a TSTA organizational development specialist based in San Antonio, “and that they will no longer be subjected to decisions that negatively affect them based on favoritism.”

The director of NEA’s Education Support Professional Quality (ESPQ) Department, Roxanne Dove, says the dedication, leadership and tenacity of SEA custodians is a model for the nation.

“Across the nation, NEA ESPs are doing their part to educate and nurture the whole student,” Dove says. “Our school custodian colleagues in Texas are a great example of how ESP high-level expertise, knowledge and courage join to keep America’s students safe.”

For the first time since anyone can remember, the 2015-2016 school year at Southside started with clear personnel procedures that can be easily followed by both the custodial staff and supervisors.

“Many of the complaints have subsided and many of the custodians feel empowered by the handbook,” Marquez says.

The few issues that have come up this year among Southside’s custodial staff have not been linked to the group in general or procedures outlined in the handbook. Instead, complaints regarding, for example, workload assignments, have emanated from individual custodians who now enjoy due process protection thanks to the new guidelines.

“Although due process rights are not yet included in board policy, we did manage to put those in the handbook,” Marquez says. There are more than 1,000 school districts in Texas, though very few have due process procedures embedded in board policy.

“Due process provides clear steps to disciplinary actions for hourly employees in a right to work state,” Marquez says. “In Texas, the custodial handbook can serve as a model for other agreements in custodial and maintenance service as well as in other departments like transportation and food services.”

We hope that this victory encourages “other locals, particularly, custodians, to step up, become united and organize,” Martinic says. “This is proof that many voices combined as one can push for positive change especially when so many school employees fear for their jobs.”

Photo: Associated Press