We Fought the Law and the Strike Won!

On Aug. 14, 2014, some 2251 educators from across the San Francisco Unified District (SFUSD), voted overwhelmingly (99.3%) to authorize taking a second strike vote. This was a huge step forward for our union (UESF) and sends a strong message to both SFUSD and our union leadership that our members are prepared to do much more to meet our demands than sit patiently at school board meetings or rally after school. A growing section of our membership is prepared to strike.

There are many sticking points in these negotiations – negotiations that have now gone to impasse. UESF demands a 21% wage increases over three years for its members so teachers can afford to live in an increasingly gentrified and expensive San Francisco. SFUSD is offering 8.5%. UESF has in the past demanded a full time job for paraprofessionals (instead of 6 hours a day), a healthy longevity pay increase and several step increases in their pay. These increases are desperately needed by a section of our workers whose average pay is only $25,000 year. The district has not budged on any of these and has agreed to only a very slight increase in longevity pay. Other issues include money for dependent health care for educators with children, prep time for elementary school teachers and class size reduction.

Members are frustrated by SFUSD’s unwillingness to budge on these issues and by the fact that most of the movement at the table has been the UESF bargaining team reducing its demands for paras. The final slap in the face came when SFUSD declared impasse even as our bargaining team was retreating at the table.

But now the members have spoken and the question on many minds is, “What next?” Hearing no answers from our union, the Mission UBC (union building committee) drafted a resolution to schedule a second strike vote in October and got a number of supportive educators across the district to sign on to it.

But when this resolution was brought to the Executive Board, the immediate response from UESF president Dennis Kelly was to rule the resolution “out of order” because only he has the right to decide exactly when the next strike vote may happen. This came as a surprise to supporters of the resolution; we believed that the actual determination to have the second strike vote came from the over 2000 members who voted for it in August.

President Kelly urged us to look at the “fine print” of the strike vote language where he pointed out that members had in fact voted “yes” on ballots that authorize the president to call a strike vote meeting. None of this ‘fine print’ language was used to communicate the results of the vote to UESF members or the public. Our own bylaws refer to vote as “direction” the membership gives the president to call for the second vote. This was a nuanced, but not unexpected, maneuver from our leadership. We are unfortunately all too used to so-called organizing that uses members as negotiating leverage rather than genuinely allowing members to weigh in on how our union should run. And President Kelly is determined to reserve the right to decide when, and if, we have a second strike vote for himself.

Nevertheless, by changing our “demand” for an October strike vote to a “recommendation,” we were able to assure that a resolution and debate on when we should have our second strike vote will reach the floor of the UESF Assembly on September 17th.

The authors of this article urge all UESF members, whether you agree with immediately scheduling a strike vote or not, to come to the September Assembly and let your voice be heard. Only UESF delegates are allowed to vote at these meetings, but if there is a sizeable turnout, the meeting will have a real impact on how our bargaining team responds.

In the hope that our members will consider joining us to push our President to act now, we’d like to address the variety of questions we’ve heard about our push for an October 2 strike vote.

What’s the rush?

Waiting any longer to take the next vote only plays into the district’s hands. The procedures and protocol of mediation and impasse are stacked in the district’s favor. The bargaining team’s choice to respect the impasse gag order means members are operating in an information vacuum. We have no idea if progress is being made or if our bargaining team is accepting concessions. SFUSD can drag each step of this process out as long as they like. It’s not their paychecks and health care on the line. It’s not their working conditions that become more unbearable every year. They don’t have to face students and families every day without adequate resources to provide quality public education. It costs them nothing to let the process play out slowly. Meanwhile it demoralizes and disorganizes us.

The turnout for the strike vote authorization was an overwhelming voice calling to move forward. Our experiences at our own sites tell us that this is the moment we have the ears of new teachers, of young teachers, of teachers who have been long disillusioned and are currently paying attention to see if this time our union will fight. For the first time in negotiations, the initiative is on our side. If we wait to see how the district acts then we once again are responding to them instead of forcing SFUSD to respond to us.

It is crucial that we move quickly to send a message to the district that we are making strike preparations. Announcing a 2nd strike vote in October to the membership and broader public is our best first step in preparing the solidarity that will be needed to strike and shut down the schools, demonstrating to the district and to ourselves that the power to run the schools lies in our hands, not theirs.

We also need to hurry up and take the next vote because our paraprofessionals can’t afford another paycheck that moves them one step closer to having to leave San Francisco or to taking on yet another job to make ends meet. Every week that we allow the district to drag through this impasse process, we prolong the current poverty conditions of our crucial school support workers.

Are our members ready?

Obviously. Yes. The organizing for the first strike vote started with phone banking on July 21 when teachers and paras were still out of school. Teachers had literally been back at work only two days before the first vote. Paraprofessionals had not even started work; many either did not know about it or were working their summer job. Now we are a month into school with our colleagues should be beginning discussions of why we need to go beyond just threatening to strike and begin to make preparations to strike.

Will there be questions? Absolutely. Will more members vote “No” than in the first vote? No doubt. But if there is any take away message from the first strike vote meeting, it is that our members are ready for a second strike vote meeting because – to put it bluntly – that’s what they voted for!

UESF is in mediation. Is it legal to have the 2nd strike vote?

Absolutely! There is nothing that precludes our union from taking a vote. This second vote does not mean we go on strike the next day. It is an important way for our membership to communicate to our bargaining team that we are ready when you are and are awaiting instructions on when and how to go out. Talking about a strike and preparing to strike are totally legal. In fact, UESF is hosting a Strike 101 meeting on September 10th and a strike preparation retreat on October 10th. These important actions would have a lot more meaning and urgency for our members if they were paired with an actual date for a second vote.

Ok. But wouldn’t it be illegal to go on strike during mediation or fact-finding? What if that goes on for a long time?

Yes. Striking during mediation would be an illegal act by our union. We do not know how long fact-finding will go on and we believe that SFUSD and the mediator will try to draw this out as long as possible to drain us of energy and to begin to make the case in the media that educators are being greedy and preparing to harm students and families with a harmful and unnecessary strike. That’s why waiting on the district’s timeframe is not just pointless; it undermines our cause. If we are going to have an effective strike, our members and leadership are going to have to do what works best for us, even if that means breaking the law by going on strike when WE are ready (not when SFUSD tells we have permission to do so).

In a recent book by Joe Burns (Strike Back – a book about reviving fight back in public sector unions), the author writes:

Today’s generation of public employee unionists can learn a lot from this incredible history, in particular, about how to successfully confront repressive labor law. During the 1960s and 1970s, millions of public workers, normally law abiding citizens, protested, marched on school board meetings, and defiantly struck to win collective bargaining rights. [….] With effective trade unionism outlawed for private sector workers, and more and more public employees being denied bargaining rights, it is not conceivable that the labor movement will be revived in any meaningful way without workers violating labor law, as their counterparts half a century ago did.

We have even more recent lessons about the necessity of going beyond what is allowed and legal. The nine day Chicago Teacher’s Union strike in 2012 was both inspiring and heroic. But it was also settled without taking on the issues of school closures. As Earl Silber reports:

Forcing the School Board and Mayor to negotiate over the threatened closings would have meant refusing to follow court injunctions to stop the strike.  In fact, a local judge did issue an injunction during the strike but withheld it to allow the leadership time to promote the contract’s acceptance and end the strike without the confrontation.

Preparing to actually force the closings issue would have meant preparing members for normal consequences facing unions and workers who refuse to obey court injunctions: leaders can get arrested and jailed; unions can face huge fines; individual teachers can face charges, fines, and firings. The stakes are big, but winning strikes erase these actions. Hence the need to prepare the ground, among members and allies alike.

CTU’s unwillingness to risk breaking the law planted the seed of its own defeat even as it offered an inspiring example of resistance. School closures that came the following Spring demoralized and punished the union, sending the message that fighting back is not worth it. Even more importantly, it made the teachers claim of “supporting” the community, as they also received tremendous support, appear as so empty promises rather than a promise of solidarity. The schools targeted for closure were schools that serve communities of color in some of the poorest neighborhoods of Chicago. These were the communities that had been willing to absorb the hardship of not sending their children to school and supported the teachers overwhelmingly during the course of their strike. Yet, when teachers unions needed to be there for them, CTU did not meet the challenge.

This question of legality is not just about someone else telling us when and how we are allowed to strike. It is also a question about what we put on the bargaining table. Already UESF has retreated far too much on demands for hours and wages for paraprofessionals. It is entirely necessary for our bargaining team to re-raise the initial demands they made for our paraprofessionals (eight-hour workday, good longevity pay and many more steps on their pay scale). In so doing, our bargaining team could risk facing legal threats for re-raising positions they previously retreated on.

But this is precisely what needs to happen if we are going to actually fight for a living wage for our most underpaid members. Given the wholesale attack on public education and its unions over the past several decades, and the desperate need to begin to reverse this trend. The fact is if you are in an education union today and really waging a fight for ALL your members and your president is NOT being threatened with jail time, your union NOT threatened with fines and your members NOT threatened with having their certification stripped, you are likely not fighting hard enough.

Any teacher who thinks social justice unionism means following the rules, honoring laws that are written to preserve the power of corporations and the rich is fooling themselves. It is not only untrue, it goes against every history lesson ever taught. Ask any social studies teacher you know. There is no single example of making meaningful change through playing by the state’s rules. These rules are meant to help the rich and powerful; they will need to be broken to fundamentally challenge their “right” to decide how the world should run.

As teachers, we talk to our students all the time about standing up for themselves, finding their voice and not accepting things as they are. We seek to inspire them to change this world that is entirely hostile to their interests. How do we honestly expect our students to take these steps if we ourselves are unwilling to take them? Either we are too afraid or doubt our own collective power. Unless we are willing to take a stand now and fight decisively for the interests of our schools and each other, those words we speak in our classes are just so much hot air. We may not yet know it. But the rich and powerful know it and, more importantly, our students know it.

If we are going to ask our students to go out and change the world without taking a stand right now to do the same, we cannot be surprised when the next generation fails to realize the dreams we were unwilling to fight for ourselves. The necessary steps toward this are extremely modest right now but will grow in significance as the next months unfold. All members should attend the September 10th strike training and get information on what it means to strike. We also urge all members to attend the UESF Assembly on September 17th and light a fire under our President. Tell him, “Don’t hesitate. Call the 2nd strike vote meeting. Act now!”

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).

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).