Newly unionized Chisago Lakes custodians tap community support in first contract campaign

Custodians and supporters rally in advance of a first mediation session with the Chisago Lakes schools.

If administrators in the Chisago Lakes School District thought they could push their school custodians around without anyone noticing, then the semi-truck blaring its horn outside their offices at 8 a.m. Monday was a wakeup call in more ways than one.

The custodians, who formed a union earlier this year, rallied with dozens of supporters on the day of their first scheduled mediation session with the district, which has shown little interest, workers said, in addressing their concerns about wages, workloads and turnover.

The rally drew support from educators and other school staff. The local labor community turned out too, most notably with the Teamsters Local 120 big rig making a few passes through the district’s parking lot.

Scott Carlson, a custodian with three years of experience in Chisago Lakes, said he and fellow union members have appreciated the outpouring of encouragement in recent weeks.

“In my years with the district, I’ve always been treated with respect and as an equal by the teachers, parents and staff,” Carlson said. “Unfortunately, that does not seem to resonate within the walls of our district office.”

The bargaining unit of about 20 custodians, represented by Service Employees (SEIU) Local 284, came together quickly after organizing began in January.

Carlson said conditions had reached a tipping point, with custodians in some buildings tasked with 40 percent more area-cleaning responsibilities than industry standards recommend, according to the school district’s own evaluation. And that’s without taking into account extra tasks required for pandemic safety.

Custodians’ wages start at just over $14 per hour – too low to attract and retain the workers needed to do the job right, union steward Chris Marks said. About one-third of the bargaining unit already has turned over, Carlson added, since custodians organized their union last school year.

“You can go to Kwik Trip and make more money working the second shift, just cashiering,” said Marks, the lead custodian at Chisago Lakes High School. “We want longevity. We need it to keep our students healthy, our buildings healthy.”

But in negotiations, the district has shown more interest in keeping the newly unionized custodians under management’s thumb.

In recent years, Chisago Lakes custodians’ terms and conditions of employment were governed by an agreement – but not a union contract – with the district. School administrators hand-picked two negotiators to represent custodians in drawing up the agreement.

“The human resource person representing the district told our reps what the board would or wouldn’t accept, and they abided by that,” Carlson said.

Now that custodians have a real seat at the table in collective bargaining, the district has responded by bringing in a high-priced, anti-union attorney, who did most of the talking in two sessions before the sides entered mediation, according to workers.

Custodians, Marks said, drafted a proposal for their first contract and presented it to the district at the first session.

“The attorney redlined the whole thing and put all the verbiage back from our previous agreement, including the pay scale,” Marks said. “He handed it back and said, ‘There you go, that’s our offer.’

“But they did change one thing: they took a 90-day probationary period and changed it to nine months.”

That district administrators would rather pay a lawyer to run out the clock than offer community members who maintain school facilities a living wage didn’t sit well with supporters at the rally Monday morning.

“They’re willing to pay him $250 an hour to do nothing,” Local 284 President Kelly Gibbons said. “He’s here to make his money and take it home to his family, but these folks can’t pay their bills.”

Kera Peterson, president of the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation, which represents over 50,000 union members in Chisago, Dakota, Ramsey and Washington counties, urged custodians to keep up their fight – and reminded them that union members never fight alone.

“Our labor community will be here, standing in solidarity with the custodians in Chisago Lakes Schools, for as long as it takes,” she said.

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