By Workers’ Voice
San Francisco teachers went through a whole year of intensive organizing for their contract campaign in 2017, and were preparing for a strike. They reached a tentative agreement in November 2017 before the strike vote was held and eventually ⅔ of the workers ratified the contract. Here is an interview of a teacher involved in the contract fight organization, speaking about the demands and needs of SF teachers as well as the gains and limitations of the current contract. He also talks about the need to organize an active base in the union to enforce and fight for important additional demands.
Can you tell us about the major issues UESF teachers face which were at the center of their bargaining campaign?
Our most recent campaign for a new contract had three central planks epitomized by our slogan for, “Safe, Stable, and Supportive.” Fundamentally these three issues encompass the struggles that the educators in our union face. The greatest overarching threat is one posed by the inadequacy of our wages. Even the highest salaried members of our union such as Counselors, Social Workers, Senior teachers, cannot afford to rent in San Francisco. Thus the situation is even more difficult for para-educators, security guards, and other support staff who earn half as much as their credentialed counterparts. The next most important overarching issue for the members of UESF was support. The quality of the education we deliver is severely impacted by inadequate funding. Understaffing is rampant, at the time when contract negotiations began there were as many as 500 open positions around the district. Special education support is grossly inadequate. Educators are given impossibly large workloads. Most schools lack programs or resources for students with the greatest need. Lastly, but by no means least, the issue of Safety was central to the campaign. In years prior our union protested the discriminatory disproportionate suspension of students of color, especially African American boys, and demanded that the district implement a program of individualized progressive discipline. The school district interpreted this agreement as little more than a moratorium on suspensions of any kind. Likewise plans for progressive discipline have not been implemented at most schools. The district’s inaction has created a chaotic atmosphere for both students, and educators, in schools across the city.
While the contract negotiations did secure us nominal gains in wages, and healthcare benefits, ultimately the situation for the membership is no better than it was the year prior. Our wage increase is not sufficient to ameliorate the staffing shortages we face, or provide housing stability for the majority of the membership.
UESF teachers ratified in December 2017 a tentative agreement by 70% after an intense contract campaign. Did bargaining manage to get you all your major demands, like the 16% wage increase?
The in the union twisted the settlement into a victory but in reality very few gains were made. The bargaining team accepted the district’s initial offer around wages of 11%, but agreed to an additional 5% increase conditional upon the passing of a parcel tax.
This is the area where the membership was most severely cheated. In the previous contract negotiation, where there was minimal membership mobilization the old leadership actually secured more money, 12.5%.
Lastly the old leadership tried to assert that because the settlement was approved by a 70% margin that the membership approves of the work they did. In reality that “70%” misrepresents the facts. Only 1800 members of our over 6500 member bargaining unit actually voted at all. In other words less than 20% of the total membership actually approved the settlement.
Pitfalls of the Parcel Tax
The parcel tax itself is highly problematic. The law was written by a charter school advocate, and is designed to siphon working class educators into the pockets of charter school directors, non-union administrators, and online education. Overall the tax will finance a permanent 5% raise to the total salary of the educators in UESF, however the additional funds will all be directed away into the hands of parties that are actively working to crush our union.
What happened with the process of strike preparation? How was the decision not to hold a strike vote made?
Initially the bargaining campaign started strong. Efforts were made by the new president, Lita Blanc, who ran on a platform of reform, to include more members, make the process more transparent, and democratic. Less then half way through the campaign the old bureaucracy, who constituted a majority of the bargaining team, undid the changes that had been made.
In the beginning, bargaining surveys were sent out to learn about which issues mattered most to the membership. Afterwards, additional organizers were brought on to reach out to each school. The organizers were asked to help coordinate and support local actions at each school, and mobilize members to demonstrations designed to pressure the district into offering better terms. In the first three months the membership responded enthusiastically. They attended rallies, held site demonstrations, but the old leadership did not receive warmly their energy. Quickly, talk of striking began to spread. Rather then harness the momentum of the membership the leadership continued to negotiate during the summer break, which prohibited members from participating. Once the 2017-2018 school year began the old leadership fired all but three of the new organizers and gave management of the contract campaign over to the union’s executive board, effectively derailing the whole campaign.
What could the union have done better to prepare for a majority strike and what are the steps ahead?
There are a number of steps that the union could have taken to better prepare for a strike. Despite 55% of the membership signaling on their bargaining surveys that they supported the establishment of a strike fund one was never made. Additionally, open bargaining would allow the membership to own the process more. The way negotiations are conducted presently, all discussion between the union and the district is done in private. Additionally, the bargaining team does not even offer to let the membership vote on the positions they take. Each time when our demands around wages were reduced the membership was never consulted.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, a shift in attitude, or a shift of narrative would better serve our efforts to win a strike. Members of the bargaining team made no secret that they opposed striking, and pressured members at their sites not to strike. However, considering that the leaders who derailed this most recent strike have conducted bargaining the same way for more than a decade it is unreasonable to hope they will change of their own fruition. Ultimately, if we are to initiate and win a strike we will need sweeping structural changes to the way our union is run, and an entirely new leadership.
I think it’d be useful to hear more about the pitfalls of the current leadership and what rank and file activists need to do to organize themselves and challenge the district effectively.
Presently, our union leadership does not support membership self-organization of any kind, however self organization, and direct action, are the most effective strategy for enforcing, and expanding our contract. The first key step is joining, or establishing, a Union Building Committee at one’s own school. Every site is supposed elect at least one representative who the membership may rely on for matters of council, however the more members the UBC has, the stronger it becomes. Members have complete control over their site committees, and thus may run them democratically. Administrators are supposed to approach each UBC about matters of school governance pertinent to the members of our bargaining unit, which is to say most matters. Therefore, if members face a problem, even problems that aren’t explicitly outlined in our contract, if they have a union building committee, they and their peers, can make collective demands of their administration, and demonstrate if their demands are not met. Additionally, collaboration with parents is pivotal. Since our foremost objective as educators is to support, and uplift our students, we frequently may find aid from parents, who wish for their children to have the best possible quality education. Site administrators frequently buckle under pressure from parents, to whom they are directly accountable. Thus, they make irreplaceable allies.
Can you talk about some current struggles happening at sites where you believe local union organizing and base building could play a key role?
While the contract fight has ended, struggles abound. All over the city educators are still struggling to implement and enforce fair progressive discipline. Many schools are also experiencing a sharp increase in their overall class sizes, since our contract has never imposed a hard class size cap, including within special education. In some schools the pupil to support ratio has been changed from 12 students per support staff member to 28 students. Lastly there is an ongoing fight lead by security guards in the district to reclaim an hour of their workday that was illegally cut more than a decade ago, in direct violation of their contract.