The members of UE Local 119 work as one-on-one aides, teacher assistants, bus aides, and before and after school program attendants in the schools of Winslow Township. Their labor is essential to the functioning of the schools, but the township has sought to evade responsibility for their wages, benefits and working conditions since they contracted their work out to a private contractor, ESS, over a decade ago.
Negotiations for the local’s third contract this spring provided an object lesson in how privatization can create havoc for the workers who provide essential public services like education.
Although Local 119’s contract didn’t expire until June 30, they begin negotiations early in the spring because, in addition to negotiating a collective bargaining agreement with their employer, they need to ensure that the contract between the school district and their employer contains enough funding to provide for wage increases and other improvements. After UE members attended school board meetings and spoke about the need for raises in order to keep pace with inflation, the district included enough money for substantial wage increases when it put out requests for bids in March.
Somewhat to the local’s surprise, ESS agreed to many of the union’s proposals quickly and the union and company hashed out a tentative agreement in a single negotiating session. The members ratified the new contract on May 24. But then the trouble began.
Long March Through the Contractors
As the June 8 school board meeting approached, rumors spread that the district leadership was going to recommend that the board award the contract to one of two other companies which had put in a lower bid than ESS. The district had also circulated an “addendum” to their request for bids, making it clear that they would not require a new contractor to honor Local 119’s contract or even recognize the union — a transparent attempt to bust the union.
Although the board rejected the district’s proposal to give the contract to Kelly Services on June 8, they did not award the contract to ESS, leaving Local 119 members uncertain about their future conditions of employment. It was the first of many board meetings that Local 119 members would attend in what would turn out to be a two-month struggle to keep their union contract and their jobs.
Two weeks later the board did an about-face and awarded the contract to Kelly Services. Local 119 members at the meeting confronted the Kelly representatives, insisting that Kelly provide them with everything they had won in their collective bargaining agreement with ESS. After the union provided Kelly with a copy of the ESS contract, Kelly informed the union that they were withdrawing their bid.
The school board then planned to award the contract to the third bidder, a small company called Edustaff, at their July 12 meeting — only to have Edustaff also withdraw their bid. Nonetheless, the board insisted on rejecting ESS’s bid as too high, and reposted their request for bids.
Throughout this process, Local 119 members attended and spoke at school board meetings and wrote to board members, urging them to award the contract to ESS so that their collective bargaining agreement would be preserved.
Negotiating committee and executive board member Theresa Sochanchak wrote, “In ESS’s bid, you are also paying for human dignity and employee job satisfaction.” She noted that the district’s past continuity in using ESS as a contractor has given its employees “the opportunity to establish themselves as cornerstones in their school and community. Not having this devoted staff will definitely hurt the children emotionally and negatively impact their education.”
Local 119 member Karen Dunn, who spoke at the June 8 meeting, wrote, “those of us who work for ESS in the Winslow Township school district love what we do and, most of all, we love our Winslow children. … The children need people who will be around for a long time. If you go with another company, many ESS employees will not come back. We need to do what is in the best interest of the children. Please let us continue contributing to the success of our children.”
After ESS submitted a second, lower bid, they were finally awarded the contract on August 15, less than a month before the start of the school year on September 5. Local 119’s collective bargaining agreement would be honored, but only after many members, weary of the uncertainty, had secured other jobs.
Because ESS was not awarded the bid until August, UE members who had planned to work during summer school ended up being unemployed all summer, while the district paid teachers and bus drivers to work their jobs, at two to four times the pay.
Taken for Granted
Local 119 members expressed frustration that their employer took little initiative to fight to win the contract, and that the district valued their labor so little. “I’m frustrated with the fact that ESS didn’t fight for their OWN contract and NEVER knew anything when we asked!” said Local 119 President Renee Ezell. Negotiating committee and executive board member Bobbie Johnson charged that ESS, a for-profit company, “overbid still trying to keep their profit.”
Johnson added that she was “frustrated that Winslow Township Board of Education and ESS took us for granted.” Ezell agreed, saying that “both the company we work for and the district we work in took us for granted (still do) and neither care two cents about us.”
Jasmin Rich, in an email to the board, denounced the contracting out of educational work to private, for-profit companies. “These companies are cheating … our students of a decent education.” Rich also spoke at many board meetings.
Treasurer Aziza Hamilton said, “I am proud of UE Local 119 members who sent letters and came out and spoke to the Board of Education. I am frustrated because ESS and the Board of Education do not care about our livelihood. We lost several members who could not continue to wait and see if ESS got the contract.”
Wage Increases, Additional Holidays
When they do return to school in September, teacher assistants, one-on-one aides and before and after school program attendants will receive a 12 percent wage increase; bus aides will see an increase of almost 18 percent. All employees will receive five percent wage increases in the second and third year of the contract.
The new contract adds two new holidays, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and Memorial Day, bringing the total paid holidays enjoyed by Local 119 members to five. Prior to organizing their union in 2019, ESS workers had no paid holidays at all.
Annual sick leave is increased from the 40 hours mandated by New Jersey state law to 45 hours, and new language was added to ensure that workers can use bereavement leave more than once in a year if they have multiple deaths in their family.
Paid training language was improved to make sure that workers receive training on addressing student behaviors and responding to student health emergencies, and the company agreed to pay for workers to get substitute-teacher certifications. A new attendance incentive bonus of $100 will be provided to workers who work 60 days with no absences.
Although ESS can’t compel the school district to make policy changes — and the workers, as ESS employees, can’t bargain directly with the school district — the company did agree to raise several issues with the district, including providing workers with keys or cards if necessary to access bathroom facilities, adding ESS workers to the district employee listserv so they receive communication relevant to their positions, restricting temporary transfers, and not requiring workers without substitute certifications to manage classrooms by themselves.
The Local 119 negotiating committee consisted of President Renee Ezell, Treasurer Aziza Hamilton, and executive board members Bobbie Johnson and Theresa Sochanchak. They were assisted by International Representative Tara McCauley.