Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Teacher Strike Vote in San Francisco

Huck/Konopacki Labor Cartoons
Members of the United Educators of San Francisco (UESF), the union representing San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) teachers, are set to vote this week on whether to authorize a strike, the San Francisco Chronicle reported today. The district is demanding a $30 million cut to teachers’ salaries and benefits over the next two years. UESF wants a 2% pay increase and says the district is sitting on an $80 million surplus.

Less than a week ago, the district declared an impasse in their contract negotiations. The 6,000-member UESF will take the first of two required strike votes this Thursday. Even though there are only three weeks left in the school year, UESF President Dennis Kelly said there is still time to strike. Indeed, a strike at the end of the year could be particularly effective, as it could delay or prevent the issuance of grades and report cards.

Like other districts throughout the state, SFUSD is crying “Uncertainty,” and claiming that any surplus is needed as insurance.

It is true that K-12 education faces $5 billion in cuts if voters reject the governor’s tax initiative in November. It is also true that even if the initiative does pass, SFUSD will still receive the same anemic funding it did during this school year. What is not clear is the veracity of the district’s claim that the failure of the tax initiative would result in $80 million in losses to SFUSD.

Squeezing Blood From Turnips
Even if the district’s claims are accurate, there is no justification for making further cuts since, by their own math, they would need only $80 million to cover the losses caused by the possible failure of the tax initiative (and only $30 million to cover teachers’ salaries, a sum they most definitely have in reserve). Nevertheless, their current contract proposal demands that teachers accept four additional furlough days for each of the next two years, even if the tax initiative does pass. (This would add $7 million to the district’s surplus), while Superintendent Garcia wants an additional five furlough days each year if the tax increase fails in November.

The austerity does not end there. Sup. Garcia wants to eliminate sabbaticals and the extra prep periods currently offered to Advanced Placement teachers, which would save the district another $3.5 million. The district has called for a reduction in teacher training, to save another $3.1 million. And it wants to cut pay and health benefits for full-time substitutes, which would save another $1 million. The district also wants to increase K-3 class sizes from 22 to 25.

Strike Early, Strike Often
San Francisco teachers (indeed most teachers) have made so many concessions over the past few years that there is virtually nothing left to give. Their union has argued that the concessions would save jobs or keep conditions close to the status quo. In reality, it has resulted in a downward spiral in pay, benefits and working conditions for teachers and a concomitant decline in learning conditions for students, with increasing class sizes and declining services, course offerings, librarians, nurses and counselors.

There have been very few significant teacher strikes in the past thirty years. As a result, school districts have grown more aggressive in their demands and tactics. They have become accustomed to the unions making compromises, giving concessions and accepting austerity in exchange for jobs and labor “peace.”

During this same time period, the locals’ parent organizations (AFT and NEA) have increasingly focused their resources and energy on political campaigns, often at the expense of organizing and the promotion of strikes.

The time has come for unions to start taking a harder line. It is time to start thinking of strikes as something potentially positive (since they are the most effective way of achieving improvements in working and living conditions), rather than something to be feared and avoided. While strikes may be risky and bad for students in the short term, they also have the ability to slow down and even reverse trends that are bad for students in the long term.

Strikes also have the ability to beget more strikes by inspiring workers in other districts or even in other industries. During the past few decades of increasing union-management collaboration and declining labor militancy, bosses had no reason to take seriously the threat of a strike. In contrast, when bosses start to see an increase in strikes, they understand that workers are becoming more aggressive and militant and they start to take their demands more seriously. If enough teachers unions go on strike at the same time, they can start to pressure the state, as well as their districts. In fact, a state-wide General Strike of public sector workers may be the most effective tactic for achieving a sufficient increase in taxes necessary to adequately fund schools, health, safety and other public services.

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