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Now is the Time to Strike

UESF Contract: How (Not) to Bargain

by ADRIENNE JOHNSTONE and ANDREW LIBSON

It’s February 2014. All of us in the United Educators of San Francisco (teachers, paras, counselors, subs) are only 4 months from the expiration of our contract with the district. Seems like a good time to stop and take a look at where we’re headed. Back in August, our elected leaders in UESF insisted that this year would not be about what cuts we have to take because the coffers in San Francisco Unified School District are being refilled. We were encouraged to ramp up our site organization and to help prepare, much as we did in 2006, for a strike if necessary. But this week UESF starts bargaining with the district and strangely we are now getting less information and even less of a sense of what our union is doing than we did even a few months ago.

Unfortunately this has been a lesson in how not to bargain since the beginning, starting for with the formation of our bargaining team. In a union controlled by its membership, a bargaining team should be elected. This is how we discover the priorities of the members – a contested election in which members can vote for those who will fight for what they want in the new contract. But that is not what happened in our union. Our bargaining team is entirely composed of people hand-picked by the president of our union, Dennis Kelly. Talented people? Sure. But that is not the point; the fact is the bargaining team must feel directly accountable to the membership. The best way to ensure that from the very start is to elect that team.

Electing members to the bargaining team encourages the membership to get involved with the process from the beginning. This organizing strategy emphasizes information flow, transparency and dialogue between bargaining team members and the membership. This is not what is happening our union. There have been monthly meetings which are supposed to update us on key issues in the contract, but they have contained little information beyond describing the bargaining process, listing bargaining dates and some boiler plate numbers that show that SFUSD has too much of its money wrapped up in central office and not enough going into the classroom (as if members needed more convincing of this fact).

This is insufficient. The real financial questions our members need to grapple with are based on the California economic recovery (entirely on the backs of workers) and the Local Control Funding Formula that re-directs more of the state’s resources towards the urban centers. What kind of money is SFUSD really playing with to decide how to fund schools? Sure, administrative bloat is a chronic problem, but this year more money is coming in from the state. What is the size of that pot?

The district knows this question is out there and has said two things: educators (teachers and paras) can expect raises, but schools should not expect any meaningful increases in resources and we should be grateful that there won’t (likely) be cuts. SFUSD is working hard to lower our expectations and UESF has to respond to this now!

Instead, the UESF bargaining team has adopted a strategy that relies on secrecy and the “element or surprise” at the bargaining table. EDU (Educators for a Democratic Union, a caucus in UESF) asked that two simple pieces of information be shared with the membership: the full results of the membership bargaining survey and the specific demands UESF is putting on the bargaining table. President Kelly’s answer was no. No, we can’t share the full results because we don’t want SFUSD to know our members’ thoughts. It will show where we are weak and SFUSD will take advantage of that. No, we cannot share the specific demands we are going to make because we don’t want SFUSD to know beforehand. No you cannot know how much of a wage increase we’re asking for? No, you can’t know what kind of class size limits are we setting.

This is completely backwards! This strategy plays directly into the hands of the school district because it keeps the membership ignorant and passive during the bargaining process. It allows SFUSD to lead the conversation with educators, the press and communities. It leaves our members unable to respond. We are simply supposed to be willing to be ready to “do something” for undefined demands.

The UESF bargaining team asked us to go back to our sites and ask members, “What are you willing to do” to fight for this contract? At Mission HS, the question from everyone was, “Well, what are we asking for?” and all there was to say was “more” and to show them was what articles of the contract are up for debate. How much more? Who knows? Members responded with a series of questions about each article that show that we are able to formulate specific demands and that we are motivated to struggle when we know what we’re fighting for. “Get back to me when you get some answers,” was their message.

Our bargaining team is going about this contract campaign in the absolutely wrong way. The UESF team should release a full report of the survey that thousands of members filled out at the beginning of this school year in conjunction with a detailed report on what demands we will be fighting for. Members need to know this because they need to have a chance to impact the demands the team is making. Just as importantly, members need to start discussions with each other and with families about the demands we will be making. This is how we discover our “soft spots” and the areas where we are divided. We must know these things so our union can begin shoring up those areas. If we do not, SFUSD will exploit this and attempt to divide our union along all sorts of lines: teachers vs. paras, high school vs. elementary, general education vs. special education and, of course, educators vs. students and families.

It is not the moves made at the bargaining table that will decide the future of our schools. Our membership’s willingness to fight will decide the fate of the contract. The real fight for the contract takes place at the 125 work sites around San Francisco. The battle will be fought and won in our schools and within the communities around them. If we think it’s decided at the table, we have lost before we’ve even started. Kelly and Soloman (Susan Soloman, vice-president) should know this; they often state the real strength of our union is decided by the collective strength of our members. But both they and the bargaining team do not believe this. They believe the strength of our union lies in the skill of the negotiators and the CTA lawyers looking at SFUSD accounts. That’s why they think it is okay to keep basic information from members, information that is vital to building that willingness.

In fact, a more effective approach to bargaining would be open bargaining – where members are allowed and invited to attend the actual bargaining sessions. Open bargaining allows members to see how the district responds to our demands with our own eyes. This would better equip us to go back to our schools and communities and report directly from our own experience how intransigent and stubborn the district is. UESF currently practices closed bargaining and makes an agreement with SFUSD to keep parts of bargaining hidden until they are ready to be revealed. Again, this approach plays into the hands of the school district and reduces the pressure to give in to our demands. SFUSD knows that only the people sitting around the table know what is going on in that room. We need more members participating in all aspects of the contract fight, not just when the bargaining team calls us out for rallies and school board meetings. These strategies will not be nearly enough for what we want.

The fact is that achieving the real raises and improvements in teaching conditions that we want will boil down to one essential question, will UESF members go on strike to fight for the schools they want? We shouldn’t just be willing to strike; we should be intending to strike. SFUSD is already talking about what resources they do not have. The most effective way to get them to back down from this nonsense is for them to know that members are ready to shut the schools down to see our demands, to see that resources go into schools and not into front office and administration.

The big lie about public education bargaining is that all of us (the district, the school board, the educators, the students, the families) have the same interests and we’re just struggling to deal with the crumbs the state gives us to do this work. In actuality, the forces that the school district and the board represent are fundamentally different from the interests of the educators and families that work in and rely on our schools. This is true despite good intentions of individual members. The Board of Education, Board of Supervisors, Mayor Ed Lee, Jerry Brown and legislators in Sacramento all fundamentally represent the interest of the wealthy and the business elite in San Francisco and California. Sure the school board didn’t grant the tax breaks for Twitter, but they are responsible for numerous attacks on our schools and communities in their role as the managers of SFUSD. Allowing charter schools, long term reduction in the number of paraprofessionals, privatizing after school, tutoring and lunch services, all are counter to the goal of a fully funded, democratic school system.

In Marxist terms, these individuals and bodies represent a different class, the capitalist class. The class that has stripped workers of pensions, systematically underfunded schools for decades, and overseen the declining living standards of workers for the enrichment of a wealthy few. For all the talk about valuing education and communities, these people have been waging war on both our schools and communities, using tools like Prop. 13, yearly cuts to social spending, and tax cuts for the wealthy to channel wealth from the bottom up. That is their job. Politicians (whether Democrat or Republican) and administrators don’t represent us; they represent them.

Their side, the capitalists and their representatives, are conscious of waging this war and that’s why they get what they want from us. They are organized. It’s time for our side to become conscious of the need to fight a war for our interests: fully funded schools, free higher education, full employment , a living wage for all, and ultimately, the elimination of the profit system (capitalism) that makes achieving a truly just society impossible. When we bargain with SFUSD, we have to know that we are not “all on the same side.”

If we understand this, we will learn what any general in any army will you. In a war, the terms negotiated are not a result of legal briefs or fine arguments made at the table, but are a direct reflection of what is taking place on the battlefield. That is what decided the outcome. Any side that enters negotiation without understanding this is ultimately there only to negotiate the terms of its surrender. For too long, we have allowed our unions to make this mistake and it has exacted a heavy price on our schools, our work conditions and our communities.

Now is the time to strike. Literally. And that starts with a bargaining process that is based on informing and empowering our members.

Adrienne Johnstone is a fifth and sixth grade math & science teacher at SF Community School and Executive Board Member for United Educators of San Francisco (UESF). 

Andy Libson is a high school science teacher at Mission High School and member of UESF. Both are members of the reform caucus Educators for a Democratic Union (EDU).