News for the East Bay's diverse, working-class majority.

Brought to you by the Democratic Socialists of America, East Bay chapter.

East Bay DSA

October 28, 2019

Berkeley High educators go out on wildcat strike

By Casey Busher

A crowd of 200 Berkeley High School (BHS) educators and supporters demonstrated outside Berkeley High on the morning of Monday, Oct. 28, pushing primarily for pay increases that keep up with the rising cost of living in the Berkeley area and caseload caps for Special Ed case managers to support students’ needs. The demonstration marked another episode in the continuing strike wave of public school educators across the US.

Oct. 28 is likely the final day of negotiations after two years of struggle between Berkeley Federation of Teachers (BFT) and Berkeley Council of Classified Employees (BCCE), the union locals representing Berkeley teachers and classified staff, and Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD). Berkeley teachers’ last contract expired June 30, 2019. Now that union members have made significant progress on pressuring the school board to cap special education teachers’ caseloads, they are focusing more on salaries, with more than 200 educators taking personal leave for the one-day strike.

Paying them fairly, the educators say, will help recruit and retain the educators who help give Berkeley schools their strong reputation in the broader Bay Area. Union leadership is accountable to strict rules around when and how to strike and has not formally approved the action, making it a “wildcat” strike. BFT’s rank-and-file members are showing a united front against the school board and its refusal to pay its teachers at levels that keep up with other districts’ pay scales, let alone housing prices. 

Berkeley educators are fighting for a 16% raise over two years, which BHS Math teacher Dan Plonsey said “will help us regain some of what we’ve lost” over years of wages that haven’t kept up with the area’s cost of living. The school board’s most recent offer is 2.5% over three years, plus an undefined “significant raise” through a parcel tax that Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) would put on the ballot in March.

Sending a message to the district 

A letter written by participating educators to the community said: 

We decided to sickout for our current students and all future students of Berkeley Unified School District, and we are part of a national movement to defend public education and build the schools students deserve. We, the educators of Berkeley Unified, are a key reason that Berkeley enjoys such high property values. We are the beating heart of our schools. Yet more and more BUSD employees cannot afford to live here.

BHS teacher Alice Bynum said, “The district hasn’t budged to meet the needs of our lowest-paid educators (new teachers, janitors, safety staff).” Underpaying faculty and staff, she said, means that Berkeley will continue to experience vacancies and high turnover, “which hurt students and damages the quality of public education for which Berkeley is known.” 

Union leadership can’t legally approve a strike before reaching a formal impasse and many subsequent steps in negotiations, Bynum said, but “a sickout today gives our union leadership leverage while it still counts in order to show the district that we as union members will not ratify a weak Tentative Agreement. This action puts pressure on the district to step up, and gives our union leadership leverage in negotiating on our behalf.”

Teachers are “waking up” and mobilizing

Becky Villagran has been teaching at BHS for six years. She teaches three history classes, a Latinx history class that she started, and is a Teacher Leader (a mentor in the Teacher Leadership professional development program). 

Villagran said she and other educators were inspired by the nationwide strike wave in public education that has hit West Virginia, Colorado, Chicago, Arizona, Los Angeles, and neighboring Oakland. Chicago teachers, who went on a historic strike in 2012, are now striking again

The demands BHS educators are fighting for are the same things they’ve been fighting for over the last few years, Villagran said. “In past contracts we’ve gotten things like a one-time, one-percent bonus. That amounts to a $400 bonus, which is basically a joke.” The difference between now and then, she said, is that now Berkeley teachers are organizing. “We’re waking up because we’re seeing this happen across the country. This happened in Oakland just last [academic] year.” 

Villagran said it all started when a small group of educators decided to take their conversation off their official Berkeley Unified email addresses and start using their personal emails and phone numbers to communicate. 

Teachers decided they needed a minimum of 80 people committed to a sickout in order to make it a strong and meaningful action. When they took an informal vote on the sickout at a lunchtime meeting, 71 people committed, with some educators confident they could get their departments’ colleagues and friends to join too. By the time rank-and-file members took an online poll, over 100 teachers had committed.

Progress in bargaining for Special Education working conditions

Teachers have made significant progress on getting BUSD to agree to lower Special Education caseload caps. Josh Austin, a Special Education case manager at BHS, said, “BUSD had a 27% turnover rate in Special Ed last year due to unsustainable working conditions. The remedy that we organized around was caseload caps and assessment limits. This was a two-year effort of unified K-12 case managers working at first independent of leadership, and then through a BFT working group.”

Although caseload caps and assessment limits are still too high, Austin said, “This new framing in the contract would change everything in terms of retaining our case managers and improving the quality of service, in addition to setting a higher standard for the whole state.” This bargaining victory will benefit both teachers and the Special Education students they serve.

“We love our jobs but can’t afford them”

However, BUSD has not yet agreed to the pay raises that teachers are asking for. Many teachers struggle to stay in the district due to low pay.

Bynum called teaching in BUSD and BHS a “dream and an honor,” and explained that she became a teacher in order to support working-class, first-generation college students like herself. “Now, my partner and I are talking about having our own kids, and we can’t see a way of affording to live in even commuting distance of Berkeley right now. I live here, I teach here, I vote here, I want to raise my own kids here. I hope the district makes that possible for me and my colleagues.”

Villagran added that teachers aren’t in the profession to get rich. “Teachers tend to be altruistic people. We’re not in it for the money.”  Politicians have long exploited this altruism and taken advantage of teaching being one of the few professional options available to women. This has resulted in teaching being a “pink-collar” profession, drastically underpaid relative to comparatively demanding careers in medicine, law, and technology.

Berkeley educators, she said, are willing to strike for wages that will allow them to stay within the Berkeley district and community.  According to data from School Services of California, BUSD pays its educators $8,000 less on average each year than they could make in nearby districts like Albany and West Contra Costa. “Every year when it gets to March [when teaching jobs tend to open up] and people start looking at other pay scales, you tend to lose really good teachers.” 

Bynum could be one of those teachers: “If I’m not able to earn a significantly higher salary in BUSD in the next few years, I will have to leave,” she said. “I cannot afford to raise my future children while paying off my own loans and supporting my mom and brother on this kind of salary.”

Villagran noted that the teachers who are able to stay in BUSD are often those whose family or spouses can afford to offer financial support. She said that many teachers of color, in particular, need to look for work in other districts or other industries in order to pay their bills. 

Villagran, who described herself as half-Mexican and half-white, said, “Recruiting and retaining teachers of color definitely shows improvement for students of color. And many educators of color who have made it through the levels of education required to teach, “want to make more money than the pennies [the district] is paying us.” 

The stickers and signs teachers are wearing sum it up for Villagran. They say, “We love our jobs but can’t afford them.”