FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL, SAN FRANCISCO: Patty Serbellon a custodian for the San Francisco Unifed School District, was so excited to be back to work and see the children at George Moscone Elementary School. Photo by Clara-Sophia Daly. Custodians and other staff members were so excited to be back to in-person learning after more than a year of school closings.
Patty Serbellon, a custodian at George Moscone Elementary School, was so excited to be back to work and see the children again during the first day of school in 2021. Photo by Clara-Sophia Daly.

The union representing custodial and other public school workers in San Francisco has alleged that the school district is violating its contract, saying the district has put out a bid to hire outside workers amid an ongoing staff shortage.

SEIU 1021, which represents some 900 custodial and other workers across the school district, sent a letter to the district on Friday demanding it “immediately cease and desist” attempting to hire non-union staff, writing that the district must “meet and confer” with the union before doing so. 

“We read it as a violation of our contract,” said Rafael Picazo, the president of SEIU’s chapter for school staff. “This is almost like union-busting. If they start with one department, before we know it, they’ll try to contract out the whole services.”

The demands come at a time when the staff union, along with the teacher’s union, is threatening to strike as early as October. 

The San Francisco Unified School District is also facing a teacher shortage: About a quarter of its teaching positions are unfilled, according to the school superintendent, an increase from last year.

That vacancy rate is the same for custodial and cafeteria staff, according to the district, unionized jobs that are typically represented by SEIU.

But last Tuesday, the school district emailed the union with a message: The staffing crisis is so severe that the district “is not on track to hire enough custodians to cover fall cleaning tasks.” To backfill empty positions, the district would put out a bid to hire non-union custodial and cafeteria workers “on an as-needed basis,” signing new contracts as “temporary, stop-gap measures to the staffing crisis.”

The request for proposals would award a maximum of $12,975,000 to up to three staffing vendors for up to three years. It is unclear how many workers could be hired under the contracts, but SEIU said the vacancies accounted for between 120 and 150 positions.

The school district’s email to the union said it would begin accepting proposals today, Sept. 25. The contracts would start on Nov. 20 at the earliest.

The school district did not respond to requests for comment.

The union, in its response, pointed to a clause in its contract stipulating that the school district “shall not subcontract bargaining unit services” by certain workers, including “custodial services, student nutritional services,” the two units outsourced in the request for proposals.

Anthony Mills, a custodial supervisor who has been with the district for 12 years, called the move “mismanagement” by the district after failing to hire permanent union workers. He said the use of lower-paid, temporary workers could become more common as the district struggles with its finances.

“It’s a big threat, because once they get this first batch of people in, they’ll just push us all the way out the door,” he said. “That kind of labor comes cheap right there, so you can hire and fire a person very, very quick with that kind of management.”

School district custodians are already paid less than their counterparts in city government: A city custodian has a base salary of $30 an hour, while a school district custodian has a base salary of $23 an hour. Picazo and Mills both said non-union custodians would likely make less than $20 an hour.

Custodial staff, cafeteria workers, and other SEIU members have also been without a contract since 2020; SEIU’s workers are operating under their old contract, meaning they have not seen a raise in four years.

That has become a source of rising tension with the district: Both SEIU and the teachers union, the United Educators of San Francisco, are preparing to ask their members to strike in the coming weeks after negotiations with the district have stalled. 

SEIU has been bargaining for a new contract for almost a year, in part asking for its workers to get pay parity with their counterparts in city government, according to Picazo. That demand would entail raises of some 16 percent, an average of four percent a year after four years with no increases.

If school staff and teachers vote to strike in October, thousands could walk off the job in the coming weeks. After thousands of Oakland teachers went on a two-week strike earlier this year, the district agreed to pay raises and one-time bonuses, among other contract changes.

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Joe was born in Sweden, where the Chilean half of his family received asylum after fleeing Pinochet, and spent his early childhood in Chile; he moved to Oakland when he was eight. He attended Stanford University for political science and worked at Mission Local as a reporter after graduating. He then spent time in advocacy as a partner for the strategic communications firm The Worker Agency. He rejoined Mission Local as an editor in 2023.

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  1. If there is a shortage of union workers… why not make some of those non union into union workers?

    Why make this into a huge issue on both sides? Do they need a babysitter?

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    1. You can’t just ‘make’ workers Union members. The non-union workers are not SFUSD employees.The hiring process is fairly complex. The fact is that the SFUSD HR department was decimated during the pandemic by flight and retirements, and some that remained were ‘work-from-home’ Dolittles. Add to that the switch to a new human-capital management system (heard of EmpowerSF?) and it seems to be a perfect storm crippling the hiring process. It’s a lot easier to hire contractors, but the quality of their work and overall productivity (not necessarily their fault) is nowhere near the level of the permanent employees that are no longer there……

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