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Jobs on line for Somerville janitors

Posted by Marcia Dick  June 23, 2010 09:33 AM

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Danielle Dreilinger photos

A protester outside City Hall.

Somerville's 49-member custodial staff, set to have its jobs outsourced in the fiscal year 2011 budget, is safe. Or is it?

"The mayor has agreed to drop the privatization [drive]," said Rick Rogers of the Greater Boston Labor Council at a public budget hearing Tuesday night. The standing-room-only crowd burst into cheers.

However, it's too early for supporters to celebrate. Mayor Joe Curtatone said afterward in an interview that while the city would be talking with the union today, it had not withdrawn the proposal to outsource custodial services.

"The city has never left the bargaining table," Curtatone said. 

The drama went down at a rally outside City Hall, where several hundred supporters of the custodians and the Somerville Municipal Employees Union held signs reading "Shame on the All-American City." The mayor's budget proposal lays off eight SMEA employees and eliminates an additional 10 jobs through attrition.
Thumbnail image for protest.jpg"My granddaughter's a custodian and I'm a retired building inspector for the city," said Jim Legee, 84. "She has two kids. She lives in Somerville. I'm a World War II veteran. I still live in the city. And I think it's very unjust to let all them people go like that."

To find money elsewhere, Legee suggested that the city cut the Traffic and Parking department and go back to having cops tag illegally parked cars.

About half of the crowd swarmed the aldermen's chambers, forcing the board to drop its plans to hold the public hearing in the larger high school auditorium. People wearing "SMEA" stickers on their Somerville Department of Public Works and Red Sox shirts applauded all anti-layoff speakers despite the usual injunction to stay quiet and let the hearing move along.

Children's performer and Somerville resident Alex "the Jester" Feldman performs in countless schools and libraries. "I make sure it's the custodian's name I remember," he told the aldermen. "I can kind of tell about the morale of the school by the way the junk is piled or not piled."

Eileen Costa, a lifelong resident and a manager for constitutent services, appeared to testify because an alderman or two had suggested finding cuts in that department. "We are a plethora of knowledge. We do our jobs with our heads and our hearts," she told the aldermen. Afterward, she said that the day before, short-staffed by two, she and a coworker answered over 245 calls to the city's 311 information line.

The custodians' fate will come down to cash. After 10 months of bargaining, the union's previous best proposal saved money — just over $2 million over three years - but $1,328,242 less than the city would save by outsourcing the service to AM-PM Cleaning Corporation, a Waltham-based union shop, Curtatone said. AM-PM would hire up to 20 Somerville custodians with better health benefits and a "slight difference in the pay." He noted that the union's proposal included some layoffs.

That said, "We're cautiously optimistic," Curtatone said. "If we're moving in the right direction we'll pull out all the stops" to get negotiations through by the deadline. The board of aldermen has one week left to vote on the budget.

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The crowd packs the hearing room.


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