The sun was barely over the horizon Friday morning when dozens of adults and kids, most wearing bright blue T-shirts and carrying protest signs, began marching in a semi-circle on a sidewalk outside a southeast Fresno Elementary School as loud music blared from a nearby home.
Winchell Elementary was the focus of an informational picket by the Fresno Teachers Association, which is threatening to go on strike Wednesday if the union and Fresno Unified can’t reach agreement on a new contract by then.
Winchell’s protest, one of many at schools across the district, occurred even as outrage was building among teachers on social media over a union handout that many found offensive and that one teacher who didn’t want to be identified said appeared to be encouraging strike breakers to kill themselves.
The material in question, “Ode to a Scab,” was originally written by noted author Jack London. The one-page paper contains the Fresno Teachers Association’s name at the bottom and the initials FTA/CTA/NEA (Fresno Teachers Association, California Teachers Association, and National Education Association).
The one-page flyer, which teachers reportedly were being encouraged to leave on their desks to be seen by substitutes in the event of a strike, also includes what appears to be a teacher’s guide on how it can be used as a classroom activity with students. It contains questions such as “Why would an (sic) sane person become a scab?” and “If you were Mary Shelly’s (sic) Dr. Frankenstein, how would you ‘construct’ a scab?”
Debate Roils on Facebook
A response from the FTA to a teacher posted on Facebook as a screenshot reported that London’s poem had been requested by some union members.
“Ode to Scab is popular poem by American Novelist, Jack London, widely distributed in labor movements since it was first written in 1915. The poem was available to pick up in the strike materials box as a NON-REQUIRED item. As an association with 4,000 members, we have members with various opinions and some wanted to have access to the poem. We provided instructions in our training that it should only be given to those who wanted it.”
FTA President Manuel Bonilla confirmed to GV Wire on Friday that the flyer was supposed to be made available to those who chose to take it. But he added that there might have been some “confusion” on the part of strike captains over whether it was optional or required.
Those who didn’t attend a strike planning meeting may have “assumed that it was a required piece because this issue was addressed at the meeting,” he said.
Teachers who weighed in on the debate on Facebook called the materials “very unprofessional” and said it was being circulated widely, whether or not teachers requested it.
“That clearly is left under a note that says ‘to leave on your desk during strike.’ Not merely given to people who asked for a copy. That note gives instructions on what to do with both of these. Leave these notes for subs,” one poster said.
Teacher Tabitha Fynaut, who said in a Facebook post that she had stood on a picket line Friday morning for the union’s Day of Action, questioned why the union would distribute the scab flyer: “Is that the representation that we want for our students? Is that the representation and social emotional skills we are asking for? Is that how we would advise our students to treat one another when tensions arise? Fresno Teachers Association, you might want to consider realigning your requests if your claim is that safety is a priority. I do not stand with FTA in this regard.”
Parents Want School Improvements
The scab flyer was not in sight at Winchell on Friday morning, where dozens of picketers braved the chilly weather to chant “FTA! FTA! FTA!” and “Si, se puede,” a phrase that arose decades ago as the rallying cry of the United Farm Workers as they battled for improved pay and working conditions.
Picketing at Winchell, which the union had identified as a site for media interviews and photo ops, reportedly was more robust than at other district schools.
Winchell parent Carina Cortes, whose home across the street from the school was decorated in red and blue balloons instead of Halloween themes, said she’s supporting teachers because she wants to see improvements in the school where her kids are in grades 1 and 5.
“The kids need more support in the classroom. We need small classes. A lot of things need to be done, but they haven’t done anything,” she said.
Union Hears Parent Voices
Bonilla said that Winchell parents like Cortes have been active in promoting the changes they want made, but turned to the union after they felt they were unheard by the district.
“They’re very, very active, very energized,” he said. “We had a parent community meeting at one of their driveways, about 50 mothers really coming together and figuring out ways to design new ideas.” Those ideas were among many presented by the union in its 26-page contract proposal to Fresno Unified, he said.
Fresno Unified and FTA are continuing to negotiate the new teachers contract and are scheduled to meet on Saturday. Bonilla declined to say if the two sides are closer to reaching agreement.
The union has four major demands: tying teacher pay to inflation, maintaining the current district contribution to the self-funded healthcare program, reducing class sizes, and reducing special education caseloads.
If teachers do strike on Wednesday, it would be the first in Fresno since 1978. Fresno Unified has assured parents that schools will remain open and that it will pay substitutes $500 daily, but the district’s plans took a hit this week when the substitute teachers union announced that its members voted not to cross FTA picket lines.