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

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East Bay DSA

May 31, 2019

“I’m sick and tired of seeing our kids suffer”

By Keith Brower Brown

Teachers of the New Haven Unified School District (NHUSD) in Union City and south Hayward have been on strike since May 20. Now ending the second week of walkouts, teachers are confronting an intransigent school board which refuses to provide even a cost-of-living adjustment. Majority’s Keith Brower Brown interviewed teacher Rochelle Thorne about the contract battle, the strike, and the community support that teachers have received so far.

(Answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.)

Majority: What do you teach, and how long have you taught in New Haven Unified?

Rochelle Thorne: I teach independent study at Decoto School for Independent Study. My students are in 9th to 12th grade. I teach them English, Social Studies, and PE if needed. I’ve been an employee in the district since 2000 — first for nine years as a counselor, and then I returned to be a classroom teacher. I was a teacher and counselor in Fremont for four years before that. I’ve worked with a lot of kids, and my heart is all about working with at-risk students.

Majority: How has the district administration treated teachers in this strike?

RT: There’s a 3 percent reserve the district is required to have. Our numbers show the administration has held onto more money than that. The state gave the district a 3 percent cost-of-living adjustment for this year and 3 percent for next year. But the district is refusing to provide that to teachers. Our union president sent out an email saying, “If the district doesn’t give us that money, that’s a theft from us.” Every teacher I’ve talked to agrees with that.

There were meetings at the district office a few days ago. The superintendent invited a few parents and students. The superintendent then refused to talk until a few parents who were also teachers left. Students recorded the superintendent saying, “I remember when I was 10 years old and found out Santa Claus wasn’t real.” Parents were livid. A student asked, “What about the cost-of-living adjustment?” The superintendent said, “That’s never going to happen.”

Teachers just got our pay stubs today. The district docked us pay for four days for the first part of the strike. The problem is, this made people feel this is real now. They saw how much they lost. But my site, everybody said, “We’re staying out on strike.” I know there are many more teachers like that all over the district.

Majority: The New Haven Teachers Association [NHTA, the teachers’ union] hasn’t gone on strike before. What changed this time?

RT: Things really changed in 2012. Things were dire for the district. Teachers agreed to take eight furlough days for three years. We took about a 12 percent pay cut. At the end of those three years, we got a Race to the Top grant, went back to full schedule, and got Chromebooks for all the students. We were offered a 5 percent raise. We felt flush. Negotiations were going well.

Then the grant ended, and negotiating got much harder. Principals and administrators started saying big cuts were coming. Then our union got a new president, Joe Ku’e Angeles. Because so many of us had been through those years of cut cut cut, we don’t want to go back to that. Lots of us have done extra work to go past the basic standards of the job, but we don’t get any respect or even a cost-of-living adjustment.

The cost of living here is ridiculous, and that’s pushed us to a breaking point. Facebook has grown into a huge, beastly business here. In addition to the two big campuses right across the bridge, they’re renting space just south of Union City. Union City has really felt it. The cheapest house we can find is $800,000–900,000. I can’t imagine a family where the breadwinners are teachers who are able to afford that.

Majority: What are teachers asking for?

RT: This year the district offered us a 0 percent raise. This is the first time we got offered zero. Lots of teachers were very offended and upset. Our bargaining team responded with a big number. At one point, they were asking for 10 percent this year and 10 percent next year. Some people thought that was ridiculous, but you’ve got to start somewhere. After years of small raises, that’s reasonable. Then we stepped down to 5 percent each year. After last weekend’s negotiations went nowhere, our union team amended their request to the recommendation of the fact-finding report, which was 3.7 percent this year and 3.26 percent next year.

We don’t get benefits like healthcare. We have to pay out of our salary. The cost of Kaiser family health insurance is $23,000 a year and going up. Some teachers can get covered by their spouse’s insurance, but there are a lot of families in the district where both parents are teachers, and that’s a huge ask.

Majority: Were New Haven Unified teachers inspired by any other teachers’ strikes?

RT: I personally was following the other states’ strikes in the news. Knowing that LA and Oakland both went through strikes, it affected me. I saw that a lot of teachers have the mentality that we’ve been begging for table scraps for a long time, and we’re sick of it.

Majority: Are there other long-term demands that have become part of the discussion for teachers and community supporters during the strike?

RT: Because of the contract rules, the only things our bargaining team were able to discuss were salary and calendar. With the community getting behind us, we’ve all gotten clearer on how important class sizes are. We’re letting the district know we’re not going to continue to accept more increases in class sizes. We’ve had declining enrollment but growing class sizes, to well over 30 for upper grades. Even after this salary negotiation, we’re going to have to keep fighting for better conditions for our students.

Majority: Before the strike started, how did teachers build community support?

RT: Our union president Joe has been instrumental in this. He and a couple other high school teachers were involved in renaming a middle school after two Filipino labor leaders. Union City has a long history of divisiveness based on socio-economic status and new migration into the city. I think those issues in the community have started to heal. We’re not having as many violence issues, and now we’re focusing on education. Everybody’s on social media, so it’s been a lot easier to get our message out. The parents have got a lot of district emails and auto-dialers about the contract negotiation, but they’ve heard enough from teachers and Facebook to see that the school district is putting out propaganda and misinformation. That seems disrespectful to them, and then we all feel common cause in being disrespected by the school board.

Majority: Have you had teachers or staff from other school districts visit? Do you think your strike might inspire other teachers in the Bay Area?

RT: We’ve had folks from Hayward, San Leandro, Fremont, Alameda, and Oakland here to support. I’ve heard from more teachers in Concord and Oakland who will be here next week if we are still striking. I can’t tell you how grateful we are for all the support from outside the district. When a group of about eight East Bay DSA [Democratic Socialists of America] folks showed up, that was hugely inspiring to me. That’s when I knew, people actually care. We’ve had huge rallies of parents and students, but to see community members from outside the district come — that helped me see how much this matters.

We know there are more districts in the area who are in dire situations and considering actions like this. Concord teachers just declared an impasse in their negotiations. We know we share a lot of issues. We have a big problem with Prop 13, and need to fix it to raise more taxes. California is 43rd lowest in the country for per-student funding. After all the support we’ve gotten from everyone else, I’ll certainly do my part to support other districts if and when they go out.

As a teacher in the area for 25 years, having raised my own two children through these schools, I feel really proud of my fellow educators and students for what we’re doing here. I feel inspired, like this is the time for me to get involved more than I have in the past. I feel inspired to talk with my colleagues who are less sure about the strike. I’ve been going to the county office multiple nights in a row to pressure the district. I’m sick and tired of seeing our kids suffer because we have not prioritized education in our country.