Food service and climate staff union puts school district ‘on notice’

Union school district
Nicole Hunt, president of UNITE HERE Local 634 speaks Wednesday, Sept. 6, about negotiations between her union and the School District of Philadelphia.
Jack Tomczuk

UNITE HERE Local 634, which represents food service workers and student climate staff at Philadelphia’s public schools, is putting district leaders “on notice,” Nicole Hunt, the union’s president, said Wednesday.

The contract covering Local 634’s 1,900 members expires Sept. 30, and negotiations, which began in April, have been “slow and frustrating,” Hunt told Metro.

“Sometimes, the district comes back and just says ‘no,’” she added. “They don’t give us a counterproposal.”

Hunt briefed a dozen state and local elected officials on the situation Wednesday morning in Center City before holding a news conference.

“We’re going to fight. We deserve a living wage, and we ain’t going nowhere until you pay us what we deserve because enough is enough,” she said into a microphone. “Pay us what we deserve or we’re going to shut you down.”

Monique Braxton, a spokesperson for the School District of Philadelphia, said in a statement that the district continues “to work diligently to reach an agreement on a successor collective bargaining agreement and we are optimistic that we will do so with our union partners before the current agreement expires.”

More than half of Local 634’s members are climate staff, meaning they work outside of the classroom – usually in lunchrooms and schoolyards – to oversee student behavior. The remainder work in cafeterias, serving food to students.

“We are the heart of Philly public schools,” Hunt said. “We wipe noses. We buy coats. We buy pretzels. We give hugs.”

Nicole Hunt, president of UNITE HERE Local 634 speaks Wednesday, Sept. 6, about negotiations between her union and the School District of Philadelphia. She is joined by state and local elected officials.Jack Tomczuk

They are among the lowest paid school district employees. Union officials said all climate staff and some food service workers make $15.50 an hour, with probationary employees receiving under $15.

Hunt said a majority of the union’s members are Black women who live within city limits.

“A lot of our workers are parents of children in the Philadelphia School District,” said Kiara Coleman, a Local 634 organizer and district food service worker. “And oftentimes, those children are shortchanged, unfortunately. But when you shortchange the workers on top of that, that perpetuates a never-ending cycle of poverty and we just want a fair chance to be able to provide for our families.”

Local 634 says its proposal to increase wages would cost $3.23 million next year, a fraction of 1% of the money the district allocates to public schools.

Union negotiators are also seeking funding for walkie talkies, which Hunt said would allow climate staff to better communicate. Currently, the district tells employees to use their personal cellphones, she added.

In addition, Local 234 wants the district to provide training on conflict resolution and de-escalation techniques; improve health and welfare benefits; and pay into a training program for food service workers.