Café negotiations pose legal questions

By Alex Gershanov
Published: May 2010

In the midst of ongoing negotiations with cafeteria workers, some tension has risen between the Newton Public School Custodians’ Association (NPSCA) and the School Committee over the ‘Ëœbargaining in good faith’ component of their meetings.

The School Committee sent out a Request for Proposal (RFP) form on April 22 which invited private companies to offer proposals and bid on the food service management contract.

Bargaining in good faith refers to the duties of both parties to meet and negotiate at reasonable times with willingness to reach an agreement without undermining one another.

Alan McDonald, the lawyer representing the NPSCA, believes that sending out an RFP in the middle of negotiations is contradictory to this concept.

“We don’t think good faith bargaining can occur in the face of a subtle school budget or an RFP that asks potential bidders to enter their bids on parameters that really need to be negotiated, he said.

McDonald noted that the NPSCA asked the School Committee to withdraw the RFP but that they have not yet done so. He also mentioned that the NPSCA reserved the right to compile legal charges on the grounds that the RFP violated good faith bargaining agreements.

“In my view, the School Commitee is prohibited from [releasing the RFP] while negotiations are ongoing, he said, “and if the School Committee goes forward with [the RFP] without having completed the negotiations process, it would be unlawful.

The School Committee, however, does not believe it is violating any laws or compromising good faith bargaining. Chair of the Negotiating Committee Jonathan Yeo attests that currently, the RFP is strictly a means of gathering information.

“We continue to bargain in good faith, he said. “We have a variety of proposals and we haven’t made any decisions in terms of privatization; it’s just gathering information to see what proposals we get.

Both parties hope to reach a quiet resolution to these concerns and continue with negotiations.

Despite initial hopes of settling on a contract by May, negotiations have taken longer than expected and will continue through June, possibly leading into the summer.

“[There will be] a lot of activity in May and June, Yeo said. “We hope we will reach a decision with [the NPSCA] in the next two months.

While negotiations continue behind closed doors, the cafeteria workers in question are worried about their job security.

“[The atmosphere is] terrible; everyone is under a lot of stress, South cafeteria manager Linda Cloonan said.

To maintain good faith bargaining, the school committee and the custodial union which is responsible for the cafeteria staff cannot disclose details of the negotiations. While doing so prevents leakage of sensitive information, it also creates a stressful and uncertain waiting period for the cafeteria staff.

“[We are] not going to find out anything about it until the last day of work, Cloonan said. “It just adds to the stress when the union doesn’t give us details on their exact plans.

The cafeteria workers, some of whom have worked at South for 30 years or more, have hung fliers in Newton schools, written newspaper columns, and been on local news stations to raise awareness about their struggle.

Cloonan, demonstrating the staff’s hopefulness, remarked that most people have not started looking for new jobs. Instead, they are looking for ways to reduce the nearly million dollar deficit that the Newton Public School cafeteria system acquires every year.

“The women are trying to get together as to ways to save and meet the School Committee in the middle to bridge this million dollar gap, Cloonan said.

NPSCA Vice-President Ernie Peltier agrees that there are still options to keep the current cafeteria staff, and that “it’s a 50-50 chance [for privatization]. Peltier mentioned that he had collected the signatures of over 1000 Newton students, all demanding that privatization be avoided.

The RFP invites companies to bid for a one-year contract for the 2010-2011 school year. Peltier noted that at least 16 companies showed interest in the RFP.

Among many technicalities, the RFP describes the characteristics and requirements of the companies looking to attain a contract. Among those are the cost of meals and their nutritional values.

Yeo said that it was difficult to predict how the food choice would change if a private company were hired. He said, however, that the RFP requires a substantial choice in menu for students and that the incoming company would have to conform to that.

Other requirements of the company are that it has served a public school district a minimum of five years without any deficit. The company must also have successfully served at least three districts, with one or more being a minimum of six schools and 4000 students.

Company proposals are due by May 20 and if privatization occurs, a contract is scheduled to be awarded by June 24. The new company’s contract will begin July 1.

Still, what option the NPSCA and the School Committee will end up agreeing on is uncertain. If complete privatization does not occur, some current employees will still likely lose their jobs.

“Next year’s budget that has been approved by the School Committee has $520,000 less for food services, so one way or another we need to cut $520,000 from the food service program, Yeo said. “If that’s reducing employees, we will have to do that.

McDonald remains confident that the NPSCA will negotiate thoroughly and reach a favorable agreement.
“We will continue to work hard to reach an agreement that we can live with and that doesn’t completely emasculate the terms and conditions of employment, he said.

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