Teachers Take to the Streets for Change

On Monday, October 28, many students took the day off as over 200 Berkeley High School (BHS) teachers were absent from their classrooms in a planned “sick-out” aimed to demonstrate support for Berkeley’s teacher union — the Berkeley Federation of Teachers (BFT) — during their final session of contract negotiations. The event was not organized by BFT. Teachers who participated in the “sick-out,” which was referred to as the “Wildcat Strike,” began picketing BHS’s A-Gate at 8:30 AM before beginning on a march down University Ave. The protest culminated in a mid-morning rally at the district office. The teachers rallied both outside and inside the district office building, making their voices heard on the sidewalk outside the room where the negotiations teams met, as well as in the hallway beside the room so the negotiation teams could listen. While BHS teachers took on a legal and academic risk by “sicking-out,” Monday included district-wide visibility events including “#RedforEd” photos, where supporters posted themselves dressed in red to show solidarity with teachers, as well as walk-ins at other sites. Since the strike, BFT and BUSD have reached a tentative agreement.

The week before the sick-out, members of BFT spoke out at a Berkeley School Board meeting on October 23. Many teachers carried signs with slogans such as “more than praise, we need a raise,” and “fair contracts now!” During the open session, BFT educators shared their personal experiences along with their requests. Hillary Trainer, a Special Education teacher at Washington Elementary School and a member of the contract negotiation team, shared that “collaborating, modifying, teaching, and preparing legally binding documents well, takes time: up to 12 hours every day.” One of the BFT’s requests is caseload caps and assessment limits for Special Education teachers like Trainer to help prevent overwhelming workloads and allow teachers to give greater individualized support to students. The proposed contract offered by the district includes assessment limits higher than those that most teachers already complete and limits that could result in more work for the Special Education teachers. Another member of the negotiating team, BHS Spanish teacher Susi Lopez, spoke out at Wednesday’s school board meeting, saying that she “may find it impossible to continue working at the school she loves.” She ended her allotted speaking time by saying: “Love alone, for my students and my school, simply cannot support me, and it definitely cannot take care of me forever.”

BFT is fighting for a wage raise of more than 10 percent over two years, as well as assessment limits and caseload caps for Special Education teachers. They are also trying to move Independent Studies (IS) teachers onto a salary schedule so they will no longer be paid hourly. Every other K-12 teacher in BUSD is on a salary schedule.

BFT educators are currently working without a contract because they have not found the district’s proposals adequate. According to BFT President Matt Meyer, BUSD and BFT were unable to agree on a contract by the end of last school year, which is why negotiations restarted in September. “We have made a lot of progress on lots of issues including Special Education, but we still are far apart on compensation,” said Meyer. Alice Bynum, an Ethnic and Gender Studies teacher at BHS who doubles as the media representative of BHS educators for the contract campaign, agrees that “the offers around compensation from the district leading up to today have been woefully short of anything that would produce meaningful change for educators like me who are struggling to stay in Berkeley.”

This issue is personal for Bynum, a first generation college graduate who will be forced to leave BUSD if she cannot earn a higher salary in the next few years. She said she has never earned enough from teaching to be able to afford her own computer or car, and she currently rents an apartment with her husband, an Oakland teacher. The two check housing prices every week, but Bynum “can’t see a way of affording to live in even commuting distance of Berkeley right now.” She believes the district needs to start “‘chopping from the top’ — redistributing the material resources in the district away from inflated six-figure salaries for non-classroom positions and toward the underpaid new teachers, janitors, and safety officers struggling to make ends meet.” Bynum also said that “at Berkeley High, I feel like I can make the change I wish to see in the world. I live here, I teach here, I vote, I want to raise my own kids here. I hope the District makes that possible for me and my colleagues.”

Berkeley teachers’ wages have been increasing disproportionately to the extremely increasing cost of living in the Bay Area. As a result, many new teachers are hesitant to start their careers in BUSD, and many mid-career teachers have considered leaving.

Since the sick-out, a tentative agreement has been reached between BUSD and BFT, awarding teachers a 12 percent raise (more than their original goal) over two years, and gives Special Education teachers caseload caps and assessment limits. Substitute teachers will also receive a salary that is more competitive compared to other school districts in Alameda County. Independent Studies teachers will be placed on a salary schedule starting in the 2020-2021 school year, and all adult teachers will qualify for health benefits their first year working for the district. Meyer called these successes “historic new supports for our Full Inclusion Program” in a press release issued on October 30.

However, many educators believe that there is still much more work to do. Teachers request a parcel tax for 7 percent of the 12 percent raise.

Bynum, who needed at least a 10 percent raise to be able to continue working in BUSD, said, “I’m thrilled that this percentage raise will actually result in a tangible increase in my own ability to save and stay in Berkeley.”

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