Food for thought on MPS workers
By Terry Falk April 12, 2011 Journal Sentinel
Two retired sanitation workers from Memphis stood proudly before the assembly gathered at Mount Zion Baptist Church in Milwaukee the Friday before the April 5 election. The Rev. Jesse Jackson made sure the message was clear. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his life for these workers when they went on strike in Memphis in 1968. Now those assembled were to march in King’s honor and vote for candidates who supported a basic civil right: collective bargaining.
Opponents of labor unions have cleverly made this budget battle a choice between workers and taxpayers, workers and children, workers and just about everything else. But these are false choices, and nowhere is this better illustrated than the attack on the Milwaukee Public Schools food service workers.
A high percentage of food service workers are black and Latino at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale. Like the sanitation workers in Memphis, school food service workers see themselves fighting for their civil rights. The false choice is that money saved from the cuts in pay and benefits could be used to help fund kindergarten or lower class sizes.
But presently, Milwaukee’s lunch program is fully supported through federal funds. Not a cent saved in the food operation can go to supporting school programs – not kindergarten, not lower class sizes, nothing. These federal funds can only be used for food service.
Just a couple of years ago, MPS did have to supplement the food service operation with its own funding. Part-time food service workers were earning full-time benefits. But MPS cut the number of part-time workers by consolidating school kitchens and moved to a smaller group more dependent on full-time workers.
Last year, MPS food service ran a surplus of $3.5 million. In order to use up the surplus, the MPS administration is trying to charge food service for a percentage of a school’s electricity and upkeep of the building even though the administration has no separate accounting procedures to measure these expenses. But food service is still making money, so the school system is now “taxing” food service for past years when the operation was losing money.
MPS will continue to save additional money through more consolidation. MPS could fully fund updates to kitchens and perhaps even build a commissary simply from food service surpluses. Privatization of food service is unwarranted.
Pitting school workers against children is a false choice, for many of these food service workers are parents of children in MPS. Rather, the real choice is between workers and their children on one side and the ultra rich who receive tax breaks, who have little at stake in the success of MPS, on the other side.
The Milwaukee School Board will continue to push for school reforms, some reforms not always to the liking of its labor unions. But it must never devalue the work of its employees. The public has sent a strong message in the last election that public employees should share in the burden during these tough economic times, but the public is not about to replace “private” for “public” in our governmentally supported services.
These sanitation workers had to be helped down the steps at Mount Zion after years of backbreaking work in Memphis, but they stood tall to proclaim “I am a man” to those assembled. For so many in the black community, collective bargaining is not seen simply as a labor-management issue but as an issue of civil rights dipped in the blood of King. And on April 5, many in the black community voted that way.
Terry Falk is a Milwaukee School Board member.