Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Union leaders for D.C. employees said yesterday they oppose public schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee‘s effort to fire hundreds of unsatisfactory employees in the school system’s central office.

Washington Metropolitan AFL-CIO President Joslyn Williams said four unions representing thousands of schools employees oppose a bill introduced by Mrs. Rhee before the D.C. Council that would allow her to reclassify more than 750 workers in the central office to “at-will” status, which would allow her to fire them.

“We think that this legislation is overreaching,” Mr. Williams said yesterday. “This is about making sure that the government does not run roughshod over workers.”

Mr. Williams said he received support from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the Council of School Officers among other organizations representing union workers in the school system.

As of the end of last month, 10,200 of the school system’s roughly 14,200 employees are union workers, a school spokeswoman said.

Mr. Williams expects the Washington Teachers’ Union, which represents 4,200 teachers, to vote tonight at its delegate assembly meeting to take an official stance against the bill.

Nathan Saunders, the union’s general vice president, called the bill “bad for working people” and said members strongly oppose the bill. But he has stopped short of saying the union definitely will vote to officially oppose the bill.

The bill, which Mrs. Rhee announced Oct. 12, does not affect the roughly 170 union workers in the central office. But Mrs. Rhee said she will “absolutely” seek similar power to fire underperforming union employees in upcoming negotiations.

Rhee spokeswoman Mafara Hobson said the bill creates better accountability in the system by establishing measurable outcomes by which to judge employee performance.

Miss Hobson said it would also ensure that poorly performing workers are removed, not shifted to other parts of the system as she said they sometimes are under current employment rules.

Mrs. Rhee was appointed chancellor in June by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty as part of his plan to take control of the city’s troubled school system.

Union leaders say the bill is unfair to the nonunion workers, who are affected in part because it leaves them vulnerable to politically motivated firings.

Council of School Officers President Bernard Lucas said the group will fight the legislation because it attacks workers’ rights.

“Anything that puts workers rights at the bottom of the totem pole is a direct attack on workers,” he said. “And we can’t accept that.”

He did not give specifics on how the group will fight, saying only that “some work has to be done behind the scenes.”

Mr. Williams said if the bill is passed it will affect the unions’ power to gain new members. However, he was not sure whether it would affect union contract negotiations.

AFSCME Local 20 Executive Director George Johnson said the chancellor’s legislation will not affect negotiations because the union is accountable to its members, not the D.C. government.

Mrs. Rhee said her goal is to trim the 934 positions in the central office by 30 percent through firing unsatisfactory employees and eliminating unfilled positions.

Washington Teachers’ Union President George Parker said on the day the legislation was announced, he thought the 90-day review process by which teachers currently can be fired is fair and that he is not sure what more the chancellor wants. He also said he expects formal negotiations on the teachers’ union contract, which expired Sept. 30, to begin next month.

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