Phila. SD withholds raises from some employees

Members of Local 32BJ, District 1201 — the Philadelphia School District’s blue-collar union representing 2,700 bus aides, cleaners, maintenance workers and others — were due a 3 percent salary increase on Jan. 1. The pay raise was to be reflected first in checks issued this week.

But the workers — all of whom are due to be laid off this year — didn't get their raises.

The district says it withheld the raises because of an earlier tentative agreement with the union. In that agreement, workers would have voluntarily given up the raises; they voted it down, in part because they were asked to endorse givebacks days after the district paid former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman nearly $1 million to leave her position.

The district, of course, is in a real financial bind.  It’s not clear how much of its $629 budget shortfall remains to be closed; the figure is at least $14 million, and could be more.  District officials have declined to answer questions about the budget until a School Reform Commission meeting scheduled for Thursday.

Spokesman Fernando Gallard said that the district “is engaged in ongoing discussions with 32BJ to help meet the district’s gap closing plan.”  He said there was an “expectation that we could reach an agreement that among other things restructures the pay for 32BJ members.”

Union leader George Ricchezza said he fielded anxious, angry phone calls from his members all day yesterday.  He found out about the withheld pay hike only when some members saw their payroll records and discovered they would not get the extra cash they had planned on.

In late 2011, every member of 32BJ received one year’s notice their job would be eliminated in 2012.  The district said the move was necessary because of its financial bind; workers fear the district will outsource their jobs to save money.

Members of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, the district's largest union, are also due raises beginning with this week's paycheck.  Gallard said those raises will go through because the union agreed to other concessions in the form of delayed payments to the union's health and welfare fund.  That saved the district almost $60 million.

32BJ officials said the district has cancelled multiple scheduled negotiating sessions.  More are scheduled for the coming weeks.

The law that created the School Reform Commission gives it the power to cancel contracts in times of financial distress.  That power has never been used.