Almost a year ago today, we wrote an article about our upcoming contract asking the question, “Will UESF fight for a Living Wage?” We said that a union that was not willing to fight for its most vulnerable members would not wage a meaningful fight for any of its members, the schools we work in or the communities we serve. We posed this question to the UESF leadership, the bargaining team and our entire membership. Are we willing to fight to make sure our most vulnerable and lowest paid among us (paraprofessionals, security and substitutes) are to make a living wage, have a full time job and will our members who are overwhelmingly women and people of color finally get the respect they deserve? This is unionism 101, “an injury to one is an injury to all.”
With mediation completed and a tentative agreement (TA) in front of us, UESF leadership has spoken loud and clear and the answer is no. The Executive Board, with their vote to endorse the TA, has declared that they will not fight to lift paraprofessionals and security out of poverty wages in the most expensive city in the U.S. Not only that, they will not fight for any of the issues that plague our schools (inadequate resources directed to the classroom, overcrowded classes, standardized tests.) Email, robo-calls and video from our union leadership highlight a pay increase of 12% over three years and a single salary step increase for paraprofessionals with 8 years or more of experience.
But in fact, the bosses in the district are the big winners in this proposed contract; we get virtually nothing. The San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) had already agreed we would get a modest raise in light of the increases in state funding. In negotiations, SFUSD moved from an opening position of 8.5% to a 12%. UESF collapsed from 21% over three years to what amounts to a glorified cost of living increase. Modest raise accomplished.
SFUSD rebuffed any attempt to get additional hours, meaningful longevity pay or step increases for paraprofessionals who barely get by on poverty level wages with second jobs outside school. UESF asked for a lot at first, but abandoned all the positions it put forward and accepted just a single step increase of 3%. Furthermore, the new TA codifies the permanent loss of the 8-hour work day for security. Some of them will get it back for a year, but after that it’s gone for good. Paras and security getting little to nothing? Check.
Additional dependent health care support is an issue of crucial importance to workers everywhere. UESF asked for an additional one million dollars to go to help educators defray the cost of dependent coverage. SFUSD refused. UESF moved to asking for $300,000. SFUSD still refused. UESF took the issue off the table. Health care costs forced onto teachers and paraprofessionals? Check.
Class size decreases and limits were barely discussed at all. The new agreement embarrassingly creates a ‘focus group’ to discuss the issue for the next three years for 4th and 5th grade only. SFUSD keeps our class sizes big, loading more work onto teachers and paraprofessionals over the coming three years? Check.
UESF has made much of the additional prep time it has won for elementary school teachers. This 150 minutes of weekly prep time can occur in blocks as short as 20 minutes and is only guaranteed before or after the instructional day. Each individual elementary school teacher provides reading, writing, english language development, math, science, social studies and P.E. instruction. It is not uncommon for teachers to struggle to find the time during the school day to use the restroom. We cannot accept 20 protected minutes in a day, especially when these minutes have been traded for 6 additional hours of meetings our principal can mandate, as they have in this proposed contract. Elementary teachers deserve parity with middle and high school colleagues who get a full class period daily to do self-directed work. But this would require hiring teachers so elementary teachers could have prep time during the school day. District dodges hiring more art, music and P.E. teachers to provide a more fully rounded education for elementary students? Check.
Standardized tests? Not even discussed. SFUSD sets their priorities at the table? Check.
The bottom line is that SFUSD got a whole lot of mileage from saying flat out saying “no” to us and now it is our turn to say “no” to them. The TA we are voting on is largely a result of the school district’s obstinance and unwillingness to accepts our most basic demands. It is also a result of the horrible way our UESF leadership conducted this contract campaign, emphasizing respecting the mediator’s gag-order, keeping members in the dark and guessing at our exact bargaining positions and next steps in the campaign.
The UESF leadership should never have put this TA before us for a vote. They should have brought it to us as an example of SFUSD’s arrogance, greed and unwillingness to do what is right for educators and students. They should have shared this unacceptable proposal and set the second strike vote date as directed by the 99.3% YES vote of the 2500 members who came out in August. But UESF leaders did not do this and they are now doing the district’s work for them by urging us to accept this TA.
Faced with a Dec. 11th deadline to vote on this agreement, the ball is in our court, the UESF membership. Will we fight for a living wage for paras? Will we fight to make sure SFUSD shows all of us the respect we deserve and will we hold them accountable to direct the resources they have to the places that need them most? The first step in doing that is to vote NO on the TA and demand that our bargaining team go back to the table and raise the issues that matter to educators:
*a significant raise (our original demand of 21% over three years works),
*at least 3 more salary steps for the paraprofessionals who currently earn, on average, $25,000 per year
*an 8-hour work day for paraprofessionals
*additional funding for dependent health care coverage
*class size decreases and hard class size caps
*prep time for elementary teachers that occurs during the instructional day (requiring hiring more teachers)
*limination of district-wide standardized testing and the Common Core-linked “Smarter Balanced Assessment”
These are issues that our bargaining team should have raised and held fast to at the bargaining table. Vote NO and send them back to the table to raise them. We must also immediately start our mobilization: hold the second strike vote and prepare for a strike in January. Going back to the bargaining table without gearing up to strike is pointless, as the district has shown us that nothing short of this has any chance of winning our demands. Since our bargaining team was entirely appointed by president Dennis Kelly, we should consider recalling and demanding the election of a bargaining team that will mobilize with the membership instead of acting in place of the membership.
And let’s talk about the centrality of the strike for a second. When we have written in the past that “we want to strike,” we were called out by union leaders for being irresponsible, for “playing” at class struggle, and for not being serious. We have even been criticised by some in our reform caucus, EDU, for “going too far” and being out of touch with union members. The events of the last year have proven the opposite. Those who didn’t want to strike have delivered us to this point with this horrible agreement that throws paraprofessionals and security under the bus. Even EDU (which has worked for years to build rank-and-file fightback and is calling for a NO vote on the current TA) hesitated on pushing aggressively for a strike and faltered, finding itself unable to present a clear alternative to the poor leadership of Dennis Kelly and Susan Solomon.
A desire to strike for us has always been intimately connected with a desire to win and not settle for less. We want to strike for no other reason than we can win if we fight with as much determination as our employers fight us and because we actually believe in our hearts that if workers organize collectively against the bosses, they can change the world.
Will we achieve all these goals if we strike? We cannot know that; a lot will be decided by our own determination and the alliances we build both in the run up to and during the course of an actual strike. But realistically, the only way for us to find out what we are capable of extracting from SFUSD will be by shutting down the schools and appealing to our students, families and to other unions to join us in holding strong until our demands, demands that can actually make real change in the lives of our students and the people who work in our schools, are met.
Voting NO on this TA is the first important step for each of us to say “Yes” we deserve more. Yes. We will stand up for what we believe in. Yes. We will decide how schools should be run and will shut them down until they are fit to work in again. Yes. We will stand as an example to other workers across the state and the country to get off our knees and get out into the streets. From University of California fee hikes to racist police shootings in Ferguson, it’s time we gave our students a real lesson on how to fight for your rights.
Say, “yes,” to all that by voting NO on the Tentative Agreement.
Then, be prepared to vote YES on a second strike vote and join the picket lines in January.
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org). Both are members of the reform caucus Educators for a Democratic Union (EDU).