September 16, 2011
By Marc Bussanich
Typically the coverage in the press regarding public schools is about teachers’ pedagogy and student performance, although the coverage these days is increasingly about teachers and public sector unions’ supposedly overgenerous benefits.
But also working in the hundreds of school buildings throughout the city are the custodian engineers of Local 891 of the International Union of Operating Engineers who are responsible for stocking the buildings with the necessary supplies and performing vital maintenance upkeep.
Local 891 is a unique organization because it not only represents members who work for the city, but is also an employer, employing approximately 7,000 workers who are represented by SEIU 32BJ and Local 94 Operating Engineers who maintain boilers, air conditioning systems and perform handymen tasks.
Robert Troeller, Business Manager/President for Local 891, may not be your typical union president because he has to wear many hats. When negotiations come up with the city to hash out the details of the budget, from which Local 891 members receive their pay, Troeller sits with his colleagues on one side of the table. When a contract is signed with the city, then Troeller assumes a management role when he sits on the other side of the negotiating table to hash out agreements with leaders of 32BJ and Local 94.
It must be awkward for a business manager of a major union to have to sit on the opposite and not the same side with other union members during contract negotiations. But Troeller said the negotiations with 32BJ and Local 94 unions regarding the scope of work in school buildings and pay for their members are typical of negotiations between union and management. “Just as my members don’t expect me to tell them when we’re negotiating with the city that we had to give up something without getting anything in return, the same principle applies when Local 891 negotiates with 32BJ and Local 94.”
Local 891 custodian engineers are essentially supervisors on the job as they are responsible for creating the work schedules of 32BJ and Local 94 members and distributing supplies to them to perform the work. Of all the different types of work environments the custodian engineers work in, perhaps the most challenging are in school buildings where there could be as many as six different high schools, one on each floor.
Troeller noted that those types of work environments are increasing because the Department of Education, like many different organizations, wants to do more with less. When a custodian engineer has to work with six different principals with competing visions on how to supply and maintain the building, the engineer also has to wear many hats because he or she has to reach some kind of consensus with the different principals while simultaneously ensuring the principals’ demands don’t negatively hamper 32BJ and Local 94 members’ tasks.
Despite the Department of Education’s push to consolidate more schools into one building, Troeller mentioned that some of his members have told him that their negotiating task is made easier when one principal takes leadership to express the wishes and requests of the other principals.