More than 3,400 Fresno Teachers Association members, many accompanied by family members, crowded Wednesday evening into the Paul Paul Theatre at the Fresno Fairgrounds for a pep rally-type union meeting that culminated with a strike authorization vote.
The ballots were emailed to the members at the close of the meeting, and many immediately took to their phones to cast their vote.
They included Roosevelt High science teacher Reid Gromis, who said he voted yes to authorize a strike if the union and Fresno Unified School District can’t reach agreement on a new contract.
Teachers have been working without a contract since June 30. Union officials say there are four major points of contention. FTA wants teacher salary increases tied to the rate of inflation, status quo on the district’s per-employee contribution to the health fund, smaller class sizes, and smaller special education caseloads.
The union needs to stand firm on its demands, said Gromis, a 15-year teacher.
Contract Offer Rejected
Union President Manuel Bonilla drew cheers when he produced what he said was the district’s “latest offer. And I have a pen. Should I sign it, or should I rip it up?” he asked the crowd, who chanted “rip it up” and then cheered when he tore it in half.
Proposal No. 2 from the district, which was presented last week, offers teachers a 14% pay increase over the next year, plus two one-time pay hikes totaling another 5%. But in exchange the district wants to pare back its contribution to the employee health fund, which has large reserves and is continuing to grow. The district has offered more pay to teachers whose classrooms are overcrowded but not presented a plan to reduce the number of overcrowded classes.
The district has been awaiting a formal response from the union to the proposal, district spokeswoman Nikki Henry said Wednesday evening. “We’ve asked FTA to provide a meaningful written response and have yet to hear anything,” she said in a text message to GV Wire.
The teachers’ strike authorization vote — the first since October 2017 — will continue electronically until 5 p.m. Monday. Ballots were emailed to all teachers who were dues-paying members as of the end of September.
The election is being overseen by an independent third party, the American Arbitration Association, Bonilla said earlier Wednesday.
The election will determine whether the union membership, more than 4,000 teachers, authorize FTA’s executive board to call a teacher walkout. If that happens, it would be the first teacher strike in Fresno since 1978.
Fresno Unified has said that it will keep classrooms open by employing substitute teachers at $500 per day. But the teachers union questions whether the substitutes will be able to provide solid instruction or will merely be highly paid babysitters during a strike.
The union meeting’s first speaker was David Goldberg, president of the California Teachers Association. “We’re here to bring the solidarity of 310,000 members across the state standing with you all,” Goldberg said as the teachers cheered.
Local Leaders Weighing In
The stalled contract talks have drawn the attention of local politicians who are urging the two sides to reach an agreement. Earlier Wednesday, Fresno City Councilmember Miguel Arias issued a news release that chided the two sides for not reaching agreement and sparing the district’s 70,000 students from another disruption to their education, which was severely impacted by the pandemic’s learning losses.
Arias, a former Fresno Unified administrator, noted that the district’s superintendent and union’s executive director both make $350,000 a year, 10 times the annual income of the average Fresno family.
“I call on both sides to act like responsible professionals, earn their six-figure salaries paid for by taxpayers, and reach a compromise immediately. Failure to do so will unnecessarily put our children’s safety at risk and place our families in critical financial despair,” Arias said in the news release.
Last month state Sen. Anna Caballero, D-Salinas, sent a letter to Superintendent Bob Nelson, School Board President Veva Islas, and Bonilla, urging them to reach agreement quickly on a new contract.
Her letter appeared to have a pro-union slant: “With a budget of over $2 billion dollars, a 77% increase in ongoing revenue since the 2018-19 school year, and an ending balance increase of 272% over the same timeframe, I hope that Fresno Unified School district leadership will spend the upcoming weeks to seriously consider FTA’s thoughtful Last, Best and Final plan proposal that seeks to address many of the unmet needs of our students, and that both parties will work to co-design the implementation of FTAs plans in our district.”
Meanwhile, some residents bearing homemade signs came to Wednesday’s School Board meeting, showing their support for the district and opposition to a teacher strike.
At Wednesday’s meeting, the School Board agreed to ratify a Fresno Teachers Association contract for the district’s social workers.
‘Time for the School Board to Step Up’
Bonilla said he hopes that Wednesday’s union meeting and strike authorization vote send a strong message, not just to Nelson and other district administrators, but to School Board members who govern as the district’s elected leaders.
“It is time for the School Board to step up, because what has happened thus far, Superintendent Nelson hasn’t been able to meet the needs of educators and students in the classroom. So the board needs to step up and do the things that they were elected to do, lead and transform this district,” he told reporters after the meeting.
One second-year teacher who did not want to be identified said she was voting yes on the strike authorization.
The district’s youngest newest teachers are typically not as prepared financially to sustain the loss of a paycheck during a walkout, something that union officials have taken pains to address. The Educational Employees Credit Union has promised no-interest, one-month loans equal to teacher paychecks to union members in need of cash assistance if there is a strike.
The possibility of going on strike is a “little scary,” the teacher said, adding that she’s prepared to dig into her savings temporarily to support the union.