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Aug. 14th and the Fight for a Living Wage

Why We Still Want to Strike

by ADRIENNE JOHNSTONE & ANDY LIBSON

UESF has called a membership meeting for a strike vote on Thursday August 14th, the week that teachers report to work to make preparations for the upcoming school year.. This vote will be taking place at Washington High School between the hours of 4:30 and 8:30 pm. Assuming no agreement is reached between UESF and SFUSD before August 14th, we believe it will be critical for members of UESF (every teacher, paraprofessional, counselor, librarian, therapist and nurse) to show up on August 14th and vote “YES” on authorizing a strike vote.

What the vote means.

It’s worth explaining what the actual “YES” vote means, what we are voting for and what we need to do to move forward. In order to strike, UESF bylaws require two strike vote membership meetings. At the first membership meeting, we vote to authorize the second vote. At the second membership meeting we vote to give the go ahead to the bargaining team to call a strike. Both meetings require that we have over 15% of our union membership present (about 900 members) for the vote to count and of course, we need a majority of our members to vote “YES” at each vote for our union to proceed towards a strike. The August 14th strike vote is the first of two membership meetings and a “YES” vote means we vote “YES” on calling a second strike vote meeting.

If you think this seems unnecessarily tortuous and bureaucratic, you are not alone. The last time our union struck was in 1979 and our President, Dennis Kelly, never misses an opportunity to talk about how “horrible” it was, how divisive and such. Since then , our union has put in place many hurdles to going on strike. Also since that time, working conditions and wages have stagnated or worsened and our union participation has significantly atrophied. Nonetheless, August 14th is an opportunity to take an important step that can send two important messages: one to San Francisco Unified (SFUSD) and one to our union leadership.

A huge turnout to August 14th and large “YES” vote tells SFUSD that we are serious about fighting for better wages and working conditions and are prepared to strike to defend our schools. It also says to our bargaining team that now is not the time to back down on our demands. We need to go beyond sabre rattling and “threatening” to strike; we intend to strike. Furthermore, we demand that our leadership is serious about taking us out on strike until our demands are met.

The story so far…

The major sticking point between UESF and SFUSD continues to be wages and specific demands for paraprofessionals. UESF asked for a 21% wage increase over three-years for all UESF members and, for paraprofessionals, an additional three pay steps, sizeable longevity pay increases after 10, 15, 20 and 25 years and an eight hour workday. Our bargaining team also called for an additional one million dollars to be held in reserve to defray the massive costs of dependent health care. SFUSD’s response was to offer just an 8% pay increase over three years and to reject nearly every demand UESF made for classified members (offering only a few dimes of increased pay per hour if you worked over 10 year) and rejected any increase in health care contributions for teachers with children.

The SFUSD response is a total slap in the face to educators. The wage proposal is barely a cost-of-living increase. More importantly, SFUSD’s refusal to meet a single demand for our paraprofessionals confirms what everyone who works in schools already knows: SFUSD could care less about the needs of paraprofessionals who do vital work to help our students with learning disabilities, provide support in overcrowded classrooms and help maintain a safe environment for learning in our schools. SFUSD does not value their work and does not believe they deserve better than the poverty wages they currently earn.

How is this possible? According to California Governor Brown, the San Francisco Board of Education and our School Superintendent, Richard Carranza, funding for K-12 public education is finally improving this year. Yet, at the first peep of our union asking for more, the answer was a predictable “No!” As always, SFUSD will put additional money into the already bloated bureaucracy and will emphasize building the district’s reserves. They are using Brown’s decree that school districts must pay an increasing percentage of teachers’ pensions to cry poverty in the face of nearly every UESF demand.

UESF has been caught entirely flat-footed in the face of SFUSD intransigence and has now significantly reduced demands that are crucial for our paraprofessionals. We knew back in February that SFUSD was refusing to consider an increase in hours and wages for all classified. But instead of calling a strike vote, the union withdrew the demands and asked for less. In late April, when SFUSD presented their ridiculous wage proposal for an 8% increase over three years UESF didn’t make immediate preparations for a strike vote before the end of the school year. The leadership rejected a proposal from EDU caucus members from Mission High School for a May strike vote meeting, replacing it with their own proposal for an early August vote. Instead of organizing momentum, we ended the school year with another poorly attended rally.

It was clear then, that UESF intended to push off the vote so they could focus on negotiating with the district over the summer and show “good faith” in reaching an agreement and avoiding a strike. The district rightly saw this as a sign of weakness and continued to reject any offer from UESF, holding fast to their own arrogant positions. In fact, over the summer UESF has further decreased its already insufficient demands for paraprofessionals and dependent health care. SFUSD embarrassed our bargaining team by rejecting all movement by UESF and refusing to give any ground on the needs of our paraprofessionals. The district proposed a miserable half percent on top of their insulting wage proposal (8% to 8.5% over three years). Finally, seeing that UESF was not retreating fast enough on its demands, SFUSD broke off negotiations and declared impasse.

Now that impasse has been declared and accepted by the Public Employees Relations Board (PERB), UESF and SFUSD are currently bargaining, but with a mediator who has been appointed by PERB (and agreed to by both parties). The mediator is insisting that the negotiations be entirely secret and that membership cannot get any updates on each side’s proposals or current agreements. This arrangement entirely benefits the district because it keeps our members uncertain and in the dark. By the way, we believe the bargaining team should refuse to bargain in secret. UESF didn’t declare impasse, secrecy only helps the district and our union leadership should insist that it will not keep anything from its members on principle (even if that means disobeying the instructions of an appointed mediator).

The UESF bargaining team is prepared to settle for less and is being forced against its will into the August 14th strike authorization vote. The initiative for action has, to date, been entirely on the side of SFUSD. The side moving the most at the table has been us (UESF) and we have shown no willingness stand strong with our paraprofessionals. That’s because the only strength a bargaining team has at the bargaining table is based on a mobilized membership which is educated about the issues and prepared to take decisive action to win its demands. Strength at the bargaining table comes from a union that is prepared to strike.

Turning the tide

Despite all that has transpired, August 14th provides us an opportunity to reverse this momentum, put pressure on the district and return the initiative to our union. But this can only happen if we turn out in strength, vote “YES” and are vocal in demanding more from both the district and from our bargaining team.

First off, our bargaining team must demand that all paraprofessionals have a right to a fulltime job by re-raising the demand for an eight-hour day for paraprofessionals. Second, UESF must accept no less than five additional steps for paraprofessionals to begin to lift them out of poverty wages. We must hold fast to the 7% wage increase per year for all workers. We must hold to the $1 million requested to defray dependent health care costs for teachers with families.

But we should also make additional demands that our bargaining team has so far been reluctant to put forward.

*We must have firm class size limits at all levels of K-12 schooling; limits only at K-5 are insufficient.

*We need preparation time for elementary school teachers that takes place during instructional time (not just at the beginning or end of the school day). This means hiring more elementary school teachers.

*We must demand language eliminating the onerous, useless and expensive testing regime currently being implemented by SFUSD including the Common Learning Assessments and the Common Core linked Smarter Balanced Assessment.

*We demand additional teachers, counselors and therapists for the over 200 immigrant students that are entering San Francisco from Central America. If we are to support children crossing the border to escape the effects of U.S. policies that have wreaked havoc on their home countries, seeking to be successfully reunited with family here in the United States, we need to take this up as a union, as these students have significant needs that must be addressed by SFUSD with real resources at our schools.

We will be told by both SFUSD, and possibly by our own union leadership, that we are asking for too much. We have to reject that logic. This is the bare minimum that is required to begin the process of rebuilding public education and we are prepared to strike to see these demands through. As we warned in a previous article, UESF will likely want to use the August 14th strike vote as a mere bargaining chip in negotiations to extract some concessions from SFUSD, while holding to demands that are insufficient to deal with the real needs of our members and our students. We have to reject this minimalist approach to bargaining and expect more from both SFUSD and our union. It will not be enough to threaten to strike to see what we can force the district to concede. We must demand that our union raise our expectations, make more demands on SFUSD, organize for two solid strike votes and then take us out on strike late in August or early in September.

Through organizing and walking the picket lines, through canvasing our communities, through exercising our power to strike we can best see what we are all capable of winning for our members, our students and our schools.

Yes. We still want to strike!

In December of 2013, we wrote an article that called for putting a living wage for paraprofessionals at the center of our union’s fight for justice. We reiterate that call here and add a new demand to address the consequences of the economic decimation of Central America, largely the result of U.S. imperialist policies. These demands are really the bare minimum our schools need to begin to recover from decades of neglect and financial starvation.

In our living wage article, we said “we want to strike.” We (and by “we” we mean the authors, Adrienne and Andy) knew that the only way we would see movement from SFUSD is if we made it perfectly clear that we intended to ask for more and to strike to meet our demands. The months since have only proven that the one alternative to striking is giving in on our demands. There are no other choices. So we repeat the necessity of the strike and invite other educators who feel as we do to join the call, starting with a “YES” vote at the August 14 meeting.

We still want to strike because we still want real justice for our members, for our students and for our schools. We want to strike because the people who are in the best position to decide what is needed in the schools are the people who work and learn there. We still want to strike because we believe that workers in San Francisco, the country and the world must decide how their workplaces and communities run by taking power into their own hands and out of the hands of the politicians, CEOs and assorted capitalists. They have proven themselves entirely unfit to lead a workplace, a city, a country or the world. It’s time for workers to stand up and make these decisions for ourselves.

For educators in San Francisco, that starts with a massive “YES” vote on August 14th, but it must end with our collective determination to go much farther than that and demand much more of our union and of ourselves.

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 (andrewlibson@yahoo.com). Both are members of the reform caucus Educators for a Democratic Union (EDU).