Whatever it’s called, it doesn’t work

By Dorothy Wigmore

Who cleans your school? Who drives the buses in your district? Who’s preparing and serving meals in the cafeteria? Why does it matter?

In schools, it’s about in-house staff preventing or dealing quickly with hazards such as indoor air and mold problems. It’s about quality education that depends on the often hidden and under-valued work performed by educational support professionals (ESPs). And it’s about decent jobs and equity, say those worried about the effects of privatizing jobs in the public sector and those who have studied the results.

What’s privatization? How does it really work?

Privatization is a spectrum; from contracting-out or “outsourcing” specific jobs, to “public-private partnerships (P3s), to losing a public “asset” (e.g., a school) and all the work associated with it. Promoted by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, among others— outsourcing common global practice in which jobs go to private, for-profit companies to “save money” and for “efficiency.”

Yet, many studies show privatization does not live up to these promises. This “race to the bottom” punishes the middle class, rewards corporations, and is a driving factor of income inequality.

This inequality is the theme of the 2018 report by an independent expert commissioned by the United Nations titled “Extreme Poverty and Human Rights.” The report holds that privatization is not a technical topic, as proponents often claim. Instead, it “…often involves the systematic elimination of human rights protections and further marginalization of the interests of low-income earners and those living in poverty…” and “…The privatization of public projects and services often yields significant short-term cost savings, but at the expense of imposing major burdens on future generations.”

This is just one of the many reasons that NJEA is concerned about the subcontracting of ESP jobs. What corners will be cut? What about the turnover and inattention that results from substandard pay and working conditions in nonunionized jobs? What’s the effect of losing quality trained people? Will costs increase once a subcontractor has its foot in the door? Will infection and communicable diseases increase, as they have in hospitals that contracted out cleaning jobs?

What about health and safety issues?

“Privatization doesn’t work,” says Bob Antonelli, an NJEA Organizational Development field representative. “It’s a quick fix, and you get what you pay for.”

“They’ll do what’s in the contract,” says Mike Rollins, another field representative. “If it doesn’t say ‘clean the toilet,’ they’re not going to do that. If it’s indoor air quality, they may not be changing the filters or doing other routine maintenance.”

Those kinds of health and safety issues can affect the workers themselves, other school staff, students and visitors.

“They’re also not spending money on professional development training,” Antonelli adds. “One thing our members look for is more professional training. We provide that to them; they, and their employers, get the benefit of quality training.”

Health and safety committees are one answer.

“We’re organizing them to be the watchdog, to make sure the right chemicals are used, the right training is done, to improve the quality of work,” Antonelli says.

“We want to have health and safety committees, so custodians can approach the district about chemicals not being safe, so they’re not doing it just as one person,” Rollins adds. “It reduces the likelihood of retaliation for ‘complaining’ and increases the chance of getting things fixed.”

“The people doing the job know what’s not getting done, like inspections or how often things are cleaned, all the different standards,” Antonelli says. “When we sit with management, they get our members educating them, saying ‘We can’t use these chemicals, and this is why.’”

Workers in their own words

Workers’ stories are effective. At Brookdale Community College, privatization was averted after custodial workers met the college’s president, telling him about the work they do that goes unrecognized but benefits the faculty and students. Elsewhere, the NJEA member-driven South Jersey Anti-Privatization Coalition (see resources) has won every one of its 23 privatization battles, saving members’ jobs and protecting the health and safety of everyone in the affected schools.

In a school district in Passaic County, the union fought off privatization of school busing.

“Those bus drivers, because they’d been so involved in their neighborhood, they know how the roads are plowed and where to pick kids up,” Rollins said. “When you privatize, you get a bus riding right by students, or not knowing the roads.”

Subcontracted busing can also cost more. A 2016 study at the University of Mississippi titled “Outsourcing and the Pupil Transportation Industry In Minnesota: An Economic Evaluation” found outsourcing Minnesota school busing to private contractors increased total transportation costs by about 21%.

Privatization can undermine relationships, Antonelli and Rollins say. ESPs often live in the community where they work. Some are former students at the school where they now work as paraprofessionals, cleaners, bus drivers or security staff. Their local long-term knowledge makes a difference in how schools work.

What is to be done?

Privatization affects everyone. It lowers income for workers, decreases the quality of services offered at schools for students, and ultimately allows private corporations to rob communities for the gain of a few wealthy executives and investors. What can you do about it?

  NJEA members can support one another within the local association, through union health and safety committees and by staying on top of school district plans.

  Union health and safety committees can document the need for in-house custodial and maintenance staff to fix hazards, and support the staff trying to do that.

  If you are facing—or anticipate facing—a threat of privatization, contact your UniServ field rep.

  Get involved in WEC’s Public Need campaign that organizes trainings to educate membership on the ramifications of unchecked corporate greed, and campaigns to fight against it. Contact Brandon Castro at bcastro@njwec.org.

  Support NJEA’s ongoing fight for job justice for ESPs: visit njea.org/justice to learn more.

Dorothy Wigmore is a long-time health and safety specialist, trained in occupational hygiene, ergonomics, work organization/stress and education. A Canadian, she has also worked in the U.S. and Mozambique, and been involved in efforts to prevent and deal with job-related hazards for many years.

Resources

• NJEA: Fight for job justice for ESPs (njea.org/justice)

• “The Future is Public”: A 2019 report from The Transnational Institute (TNI): that provides case studies about privatization failures that led municipalities and other public institutions around the world to bring outsourced activities in-house. (tni.org/en/publication/the-future-is-public)

• “Extreme Poverty and Human Rights,”: A United Nations 2018 report of the Special Rapporteur on privatization and human rights. (undocs.org/A/73/396)

• WEC’s Public Need Campaign: njwec.org/take-action/campaigns/publicneed

• Facebook group: South Jersey Anti-Privatization Coalition (facebook.com/groups/1487458047951601)

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