The PFSP union logo, aiming to empower the community to take a stand with them. Their slogan, “One Job Should Be Enough,” is written across the top, advocating for higher pay and other benefits. Photo via Leighta Lehto.

On Sept. 26, 2023 the Portland Federation of School Professionals (PFSP) union voted not to ratify their contract with Portland Public Schools (PPS). The turnout came to 48.61 percent in favor of ratifying the contract, and 51.39 percent against. This round of negotiations had the largest voting turnout in the union’s history, with over three quarters of PFSP’s 1,350 members casting votes. “I voted no, and I’m proud to say that I did,” said Shelley Johnson, a paraeducator at Franklin High School.

 Though the two parties came to a tentative agreement in mid Sept. 2023, there was still a list of proposed collective bargaining agreements, waiting to be ratified by an official vote. PFSP members felt that the tentative agreement did not sufficiently fulfill their requests for better pay, benefits, and training, leading to the majority vote of no. With PFSP voting not to ratify, PPS and PFSP are sent back to the bargaining table.

The PFSP union consists of paraeducators, campus safety associates, secretaries, library assistants, administrative assistants, and a variety of other staff who often fly under the radar. People frequently and mistakenly assume these staff members to be included in the Portland Association of Teachers (PAT), but their union is entirely separate, as are the agreements they reach. Nonetheless, PPS has been facing backlash from both the PAT and PFSP unions for several years now, as well as from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which includes nutrition service and custodial employees; with the current rising tension of a potential teacher strike, PPS has their hands full. 

“We want people to feel prepared for the workplace they are entering and to know that their safety will be prioritized,” said Franklin’s PFSP site representative, Leighta Lehto. The proposed contract with PPS consisted of raising the minimum pay to $20 an hour, giving long-term employees two $500 longevity bonuses, and providing cost-of-living adjustments. 

Currently, there is growing concern in the community when comparing wages to the cost of living in Portland. According to Numbeo, a cost of living database, the present state of the economy puts the average monthly cost of living for a Portland family household at around $4,783, meaning a livable wage for someone with no children in Portland is $21.87. Lehto expands, “A 3% raise is not good enough— the offer the district made was not high enough for membership to vote yes, let alone pay their bills and live comfortably.” 

Many PFSP members believe the unlivable wages are due to a lack of respect from PPS. “We deserve a fair wage for a big job,” said Johnson. “I feel like we are underappreciated, and part of what shows up is how we are respected financially.” PPS did not respond to requests for comment by the date of publication.

“If we can access self care there will be less burnout and we can support our students better and have less staff turnover,” said Lehto. The overall feeling from union members is that jobs that take care of and educate our next generation are facing copious amounts of disrespect on the corporate level. Inflation has caused many Portlanders, including those in the education field, to take on two or even three jobs to stay afloat. Lehto summarizes that “A lot of workers work 1-2 additional jobs to make ends meet. We think one job should be enough. [I]n order to support our students and schools, we should be compensated fairly to thrive and not merely survive. Our bargaining team will be returning to the table to ask for prioritiz[ation of] all workers.” 

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