On November 15, Berkeley teachers voted to accept a new contract, which included up to a 12 percent raise for all Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) staff and lighter caseloads for special education staff. This decision came after months of negotiations for a new contract that culminated in a teacher “sick-out” on October 28.
After the unofficial strike, many school board meetings, and community support, BUSD and a negotiation team made up of teachers, union leaders, and other staff created a new contract designed to be a reasonable plan to meet the needs of BUSD staff. The Berkeley Federation of Teachers (BFT) voted 549 in favor of the new contract and 44 against it.
The new contract consists of a 2 percent raise this year and next year, with an additional 7 percent raise from the taxpayers of Berkeley if they pass a new parcel tax. This equates to a 12 percent raise by 2021 for all BUSD staff. This new contract applies to teachers as well as safety staff, custodial staff, and administration. As previously mentioned, the new contract also reduces the caseloads for special education staff, who have become increasingly overwhelmed with their responsibilities. Although the teachers advocated for a higher raise, many understand that with recent budget cuts in the district, a 12 percent increase over two years is a win.
Susi Lopez, a Berkeley High School (BHS) teacher in the Spanish language department, feels “deeply satisfied” with the new contracts. Lopez was one of the eight members on the BFT negotiations team. According to Lopez, the team conducted an extensive review of BUSD employees feelings about the proposal. The review included a survey of BFT members to get a sense of what they wanted, as well as members observing school board meetings attending negotiations meetings with BUSD representatives. These negotiations brought up some disagreements, but Lopez said, “Both teams were committed to finding solutions, so that meant maintaining an open mind and a friendly attitude.”
For the 44 BFT members that voted against the contract, the compromise ultimately found between the district and the negotiation team is unsatisfactory. Masha Albrecht, a BHS math teacher, is one such voter. Albrecht said that the district should have used a process called “fact finding” in which the state appoints investigators to study the district books, which may find “that there is money to be spent on educators wages that is wasted on other things,” Albrecht said. Albrecht also said that she believes BUSD staff “owe this to our community before begging for another tax increase.”
Looking to the future, many feel that this new contract is a step in the right direction and hope that it will be followed with more support in the form of further wage increases.
After the long process of negotiations and activism, Lopez believes that the “community can be reminded of something they are already aware of: that Berkeley educators love our jobs and serving our students, that we are deeply committed to maintaining quality educators at all of our sites, [and] that the BFT members are united in the fight for public education.”
Another issue that has been brought up with respect to the new contract is its alleged lack of an adequate increase to help teachers afford the high costs of living in the Bay Area. Dan Plonsey, a BHS math teacher, explained that “from 2017-19, we lost 5-6 percent, so we’ll be back where we were before signing our last truly terrible contract: one percent over two years in 2017.” The cost of living in Berkeley is two times higher than the national average, and even with the contract’s raise, “Teachers hoping to buy a home in Berkeley will be no closer to being able to,” Plonsey said.
Prior to reaching the agreement, the teachers coordinated a variety of events to demonstrate their feelings and goals. According to Lopez, the October 28 sick-out was “instrumental in helping the negotiations team achieve [their] goals.” The sick-out was intentionally scheduled for the last day of negotiations in order to maximize the power of the strike. The actions and widespread activism of the teachers and staff who participated had a profound impact and “helped shape the end result,” Lopez added.
Looking to the future, many feel that this new contract is a step in the right direction and hope that it will be followed with more support in the form of further wage increases. As demonstrated this year by BUSD staff and community members, those future contracts may not come without a fight.
Community engagement will be the key to these battles. Plonsey said: “I hope that people will understand that we need to unite to turn things around.”