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N.Y.C. Custodians' Union Votes on Contract

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School custodians in New York City began a ratification vote last week on a new contract that eliminates many often-criticized practices and, for the first time for any municipal union in the city, links pay increases to job performance.

Months after he rejected an agreement negotiated between Schools Chancellor Ramon C. Cortines and the custodians' union as not going far enough, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani announced a tentative contract Oct. 14 that he said extracts further concessions from the custodians.

The new contract represents a "recognition of and commitment to revamping a broken and unworkable system," Mr. Giuliani said in a news conference at City Hall held to announce the tentative pact.

If ratified by Local 891 of the International Union of Operating Engineers and approved by the city's board of education, as expected, the contract could mean an end to a system in which the custodians worked as virtually independent contracters with autonomy from building principals.

Through work rules established over the years, custodians have been allowed to maintain schools at their own discretion and charge high fees for after-hours use of school facilities. (See Education Week, Jan. 8, 1992.)

Under the contract, the 835 custodians would be required to become more productive, and their performance would be evaluated by their principals. For the first time, a portion of their pay raises would be based on such evaluations.

The contract also calls for custodians to use time clocks to punch in and out of work; elimination of the practice of "relative swapping," by which many custodians hired one another's relatives; and elimination or reduction of fees for after-hours use of facilities.

The pact provides for a 7.5 percent wage increase over 4 years, which is retroactive to July 1990 and ends Dec. 31. Another 4 percent wage increase for this year is contingent on satisfactory evaluations by school principals.

Initial Pact Rejected

"This contract brings about accountability to the schools," said Forrest Taylor, a spokesman for Randy L. Levine, the city's commissioner of labor and the chief negotiator of the contract.

Last May, Mayor Giuliani rejected an initial contract with the custodians that Mr. Cortines had called "revolutionary." That contract included many of the same provisions as the new tentative pact, but the Mayor said it was too costly and did not go far enough in spurring private competition with the custodians. (See Education Week, May 18, 1994.)

One of Mr. Giuliani's major bargaining chips has been a threat to turn over the maintenance of the schools to private companies. The new pact gives the city the "unfettered" right to consider privatization of such services.

Although Mr. Cortines has grumbled about the way city officials rejected the initial pact, he appeared at the news conference with the Mayor and endorsed the new contract as an improvement over his earlier effort.

"This contract will make our schools cleaner, compel our custodians to be more productive, and provide our children with better learning environments," he said.

Union officials did not appear at the news conference, and they declined to discuss the pact. Joseph Stigliano, the president of Local 891 of the Operating Engineers, said in a prepared statement that the contract "addresses many long-standing concerns."

The contract was being ratified by mail balloting, which could take three to four weeks, a union spokeswoman said.

In a related development, a commission appointed by Mr. Cortines has recommended an overhaul of the school-maintenance system.

The panel last week called for allowing some local school boards in New York City to experiment with private maintenance services, and it said that no single idea for reforming such services could apply equally to a system that includes more than 1,150 buildings.

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