In this interview done by Labor Radio on 11-11-19 , Josh A., & Aryn F., longtime Berkeley teachers and part of the union reform work there, talk to Labor Radio on how activists at Berkeley High and BFT (Berkeley Federation of Teachers) are now setting the stage for a statewide fight in 2020 for the Schools and Communities First progressive tax measure. Beginning in 2018, BFT based its’ contract campaign around the slogans, “We Love Our Jobs But Can’t Afford Them” and “Keep Teachers in Berkeley”, with primary demands of a significant salary increase and more supports for Special Education.
Please tell our listeners about your teaching background and experience. What inspired you to become a teacher?
Josh: Almost 20 years of teaching in Special Education in the Bay Area, I started as a substitute in San Diego and fell in love with the population of students with disabilities, they have an underdog element that I have always empathized with.
Can you tell us about your involvement with your union and union caucuses, including UCORE?
Josh: In the Berkeley Federation of Teachers there is no real caucus currently. We do have an active rank and file group at Berkeley High School in our CAT, or contract action team, and some other sites are organizing from the bottom up as well. We are working on connecting the activists/organizers to form an independent network of Berkeley educators and connect it with the statewide movement.
In California, we don’t have a statewide caucus but some locals like UTLA and OEA have had caucuses that we’ve tried to connect through UCORE (United Caucus of Rank and File Educators) and then using California Educators United, to support each other and share resources across locals statewide. It’s been a challenge to unite the huge and diverse state but we are making progress and we are keeping the hope alive.
It will be necessary to join forces across locals and the state affiliates, the California Federation of Teachers and the California Teachers Association, to take coordinated statewide action in the fight for social and racial justice, increased funding through progressive taxation, for public education and against privatization. Nationally, we are connected to other states’ Educator United Facebook groups and are discussing forming a nationwide network to take collective action in 2020 and beyond.
Recently you ran a petition campaign about special education working conditions and student learning conditions. Tell us about your campaign?
In Special Ed, we have an ever-increasing amount of legally-binding paperwork and time-intensive assessments that too often take case managers away from the classroom where they provide service that most directly supports students and teachers. The California Ed Code of a 28-student maximum caseload is too high for any case manager and it especially does not meet the needs of our inclusive education model with nearly all students being educated in a general education setting. To make it work the way it was designed we need to fully staff it. Both our Mild/Moderate and Moderate/Severe Case Managers need to spend more time than they currently have available with students and their teachers. When caseloads are too high, case managers cannot effectively serve students, and our classroom teachers and students are left under-supported. This has a major negative impact on all of our students. Academic assessments, especially initial IEPs, are a part of a case manager’s job that requires significant time to complete. Due to legal timelines, too many assessments take case managers away from serving students directly.
Due to the intense emotional, physical, and intellectual workload, a record number of 9 special education teacher positions were vacant at the start of the 2019-20 school year. There was a 27% turnover rate last year alone. Our students benefit from a stable workforce, and they are not getting this due to the excessive workload of this job.
We need more student supports to make sure we are meeting our students’ needs. With increased case managers, students with IEPs will receive the services they need to succeed, and they will receive services from the people most qualified to fulfill the IEP. This impacts every student because our full inclusion model integrates all students into the same classrooms. With a smaller caseload, Special Ed case managers will have more time to collaborate with General Ed teachers and IAs. This change will help us retain our highly-qualified and trained Special Ed case managers, and to fill all Special Ed positions. Our contract will ensure more time for case managers to provide direct services to students and less time where they must do paperwork.
What inspired you?
We were inspired by Los Angeles and Oakland who fought for “common good” demands, increased student supports, to benefit students, in fact, those with the most needs, as well as educators. Our SPED demands fit into our larger contract campaign in Berkeley around sustainability, with the slogans; “Keep Teachers in Berkeley” and “Fully Fund Full Inclusion”.
How was it organized?
The 3 site reps for Special Education (SPED) held a meeting and invited all the SPED case managers in the district. The turnout and energy were high, and we all shared similar issues, so from that meeting, we formed a working group. We met regularly to research and write contract language for the bargaining team which included two case managers as full members plus more as guests. Our working group propelled the Special Ed campaign, developed tactics and organized ourselves to fight for our demands. We were relentless and unified, and we moved the union to our side and the district to meet most of our demands.
Some of the collective actions that we organized include: making public comments at board meetings and school board mobilizations, visiting board members in office hours, taking REDforED photos with “Caseload Caps” placards and emailing them to the board and superintendent, and the grand final was a petition in which we collected over 1,000 signatures and made them into a giant poster which we presented to the school board during public comments. The SPED portion was an inspiring and energetic component of our contract campaign that developed new leaders and activists to strengthen our union and movement long-term.
What specific changes were you organizing around?
We started organizing around caseload caps of 18 for mild-moderate and 8 for moderate-severe, and assessment limits of 1 per month. In our tentative agreement, which we are voting on now, we got caseload caps of 21 and 11 with averages of 20 and 10, and assessment limits of 2 per month and 12 total for mild-mod. This is one of the best sets of protections for SPED in all of California, maybe the best, and it’s just a start for us. When we go back to the bargaining table next, we will aim for lower caps because we know that we will need the district to hire even more case managers to lower our workload and serve students most effectively without us burning out. We hope to set a model and standard for other districts.
Can you tell us about organizing your wildcat sickout at Berkeley High and the rally outside the school?
The wildcat resulted from a very particular moment in the negotiations process that put us in a rather challenging position. We were about a week from the last scheduled negotiations session. Given that a parcel tax was on the table that could result in significant wage increases with less risk of major cuts to programming or staffing, we knew that both the school board and the union wanted to agree on a tentative agreement that included the parcel tax contingency. Due to the election timeline for a March 2020 parcel tax ballot measure, there was intense pressure to resolve the contract in a timely manner. It would be possible that the districts’ team would low ball us in the 11th hour and not offer a contract that would have a high enough wage increase to address our sustainability/cost of living crisis in Berkeley. Without the leverage of a very vocal and unified membership that was willing to disrupt the process, we feared that our bargaining team would be put in a tough spot in which they might opt to sign a less than optimal contract.
The wildcat at Berkeley High involved over 200 educators and was the result of several years of systematic organizing at the site. We have a huge and historically disorganized and disunified site. So we started last year with easy solidarity photos: a few teachers wearing red on their lunch breaks taking a photo of themselves with signs supporting the strikes in LA and Oakland. We then organized more carefully to take a photo with over 80 staff members in support of Oakland, and we developed a simple process that we refined over the next year: making half-page invites to the photos or other action, with candy attached. We developed a system of “floor captains” who were just teachers willing to pass out these invites to colleagues on their building floor. Pretty soon, we started holding lunch time “contract action team” meetings with an open invitation to any colleague, classified or certificated to participate in. When it became clear that May 22nd was going to be a California Day of Action with a rally and march in Sacramento, we set our sights on making that a show of our solidarity and strength. We used that same floor captain system, but amped it up with wall posters and door signs that teachers posted the week of the action, saying, “I’m going to Sacramento on May 22nd because…” More importantly, we started to use a spreadsheet to track who had received info on the event and whether or not they were a “yes” or “no” about attending. We circled back to all of our maybes with some new faces checking in, and by May 22nd, nearly closed down Berkeley High to rally at the state capitol.
One of the least glamorous tasks we had at a site with over 300 colleagues was to figure out how to communicate outside of our professional emails. As things heated up, it was simply untenable to be talking about strategy on our conference emails. So we developed an online form with a QR code to collect folks’ personal contact info. It took months and months to build this, and to this day, we are still receiving new participants’ emails to be added into the email discussion groups we created. Yet I cannot stress what an important role this very tedious organizing task was: it allowed colleagues across a broad campus to start having deeper conversations about their felt needs and concerns. It allowed us to communicate with a certain level of privacy and autonomy from the official union structure.
When teachers got word that the district and union were moving into their final round of negotiations with little sense of what would be put on the table by the district in terms of compensation, people felt an urgency to send a loud message to the district to be wary of lowballing us, but also to convey to our own negotiations team that we had their back and so they did not need to back down. One person called for a meeting that the team felt we needed to have about a specific proposal: should Berkeley High do a sickout on the last day of negotiations with the goal of putting pressure on the district to meet our unions’ demands for a sustainable wage, at least 5% per year over two years. We planned an agenda together and in a 40-minute, carefully facilitated process that involved 80 educators, about 70 folks voted yes. From here we sent a one question survey to every non-work email we had. We agreed that we needed at least 80 committed yes to call it. By 10pm that evening, we were able to call it.
What was most beautiful about participating in this wildcat was the myriad ways folks plugged into the process: sign making, silkscreening, chant leading, letter writing, press communicating, photocopying flyers. It was all the small efforts: the person who brought the donuts to the rally, the marching band, the librarian who took on our messy communications spreadsheet, etc. Even the person who passed out cough drops to chant leaders as they lost their voices. We learned to share leadership and voice, working across
What risks did members face as participants? Did the district issue any sort of warning or threat?
Taking illegal action is always a risk, and the people most in danger are those without tenure. The district didn’t make any threatening statement, but the institutional memory of educators who had seen campaigns over decades suggested that non-tenured teachers should sit out. As members, we wanted to promote unity and solidarity among those who were sicking out and those who weren’t, and to protect the most vulnerable members (new hires), so our consistent message was not to pressure anyone, instead: Do what you gotta do.
What role do you think that action played in your contract bargain and subsequent TA?
The last news we had out of negotiations suggested that the compensation discussion wasn’t really moving forward. Our union was able to use our action as leverage very directly in the final negotiation session – pointing to the music, chanting, and marching of hundreds of members chanting outside the door. Inside our bargaining team was saying, “We won’t stop our members from doing this again if they don’t get a TA they’re happy with.”
Were there other actions during the bargain?
Other sites who teach younger students coordinated simultaneous walk-ins, #redfored photos, work-to-rule, and other solidarity actions. We also used the press and social media to circulate information about our campaign. This continues as we ramp up to get a parcel tax passed, and a state-wide progressive tax measure called Schools and Communities First.
What did you win in your contract?
We won special education sustainability, in the form of assessment and caseload limits. We will be a prize district for master special educators, and able to retain our special educators better than ever before.
We won a 12% raise in compensation over the next two years. That is a permanent, across-the-board lift. Our administrators and classified staff each have a “me-too” clause that guarantees them the same percentage (though classified can negotiate for more through their own union).
We also won a more democraticand fighting local union than we’ve had in a long time. We showed our district that they can’t just negotiate with our president alone and expect us to be happy. We are a lot more grass-roots and confident, unified and powerful now.
What did you learn from this experience?
I think one aspect of community organizing that needs to be remembered is that you as an activist or organizer shouldn’t always be setting the pace, agenda or even determine the tactics or desired outcomes. The most potent way to build capacity for collective action is to create spaces and times for folks to hear each other and really talk about what they want. They don’t need to be told what to do. The group process often results in much smarter ideas and strategies than what one person on their own can accomplish. I don’t believe in a paternalistic charismatic leadership that calls folks to action- I think that’s deeply patriarchal. Our group of CAT leaders strives to make decisions even about small emails we send, collectively. We try to give new voices a turn facilitating, giving speeches and connecting with press.
Although we ended up with a strong contract contingent on the parcel tax passing, no single contract is going to uproot social inequality. One of our biggest concerns is the state of separation between classified and certificated- classified staff have their own negotiations via their own union, but on a timeline that makes it hard for them to partner with us so they have more leverage. Classified are justifiably concerned with their own job security- but now that we have our contract, we have to express that we will not tolerate or accept those losses.
We have a lot more work to do to democratize our process and our union in the future. We need to upload our communications systems to a wider, district level. One sacrifice that occurred is that we had to make a call about our sickout without the input of other sites in Berkeley Unified. We acknowledge that this is problematic and undesirable. At the time, we simply had no system we could use to engage other sites in the discussion. Going forward, we want that system built.
Organizing statewide and nationwide to create a new paradigm for education. The average teaching career is still under five years, as new teachers constantly find working conditions and compensation untenable for the long haul. That hurts students the most, because a rotating door of inexperienced teachers can’t provide the education our kids deserve. There’s no good reason why our country should have such a sustainability problem among educators. We need to dedicate more resources to training and transitioning new teachers into the classroom so they are well prepared. We need to radically increase compensation to match the skill level and workload demands of the profession. There’s a pink collar paycut to being a teacher, and we’re sick of it. Pay teachers better, give us time to prep and collaborate. See what’s possible in public education. We’ve never tried it, and we’ll never see success or gains in equity unless we fully invest in the professionals who are dedicating their lives to raising a better educated generation.