By Mike Myslinski
United Teachers of Richmond members take to the streets in protest.
Sometimes educators have to draw a line to protect their profession and their well-earned compensation.
"And sometimes that line is a picket line," says Pixie Hayward Schickele, president of the 1,900-member United Teachers of Richmond (UTR), which is heading for a showdown over protecting their health care benefits in a large district that has imposed draconian cuts hurting both students and teachers.
On the brink of a possible strike this fall in their San Francisco Bay Area labor battle over health care cuts and other issues, hundreds of UTR members working in the West Contra Costa Unified School District fanned out after school Sept. 29 in four cities in their latest push to rally public support.
Labor relations fireworks began in July when the district imposed deep cuts to teachers' benefits. The district pink-slipped 125 teachers earlier this year and made severe cuts to music, art, foreign language and computer classes. The district will stop paying health insurance premiums for dependents of teachers as of Jan. 1 — costing educators thousands of dollars to get health care for spouses and children.
The district imposed cuts that caused class sizes to soar and gutted teacher transfer seniority rights, and also capped what it will pay for health coverage for active and retired educators, creating further financial hardships that will drive more teachers out of the district.
"I believe this is a life-and-death fight to protect education in this district," Hayward Schickele says. "We have to be able to recruit and retain educators. With these drastic cuts to our health care, why would teachers come to our district to work?"
Since their contract battle is at a crossroads, teachers billed the public protesting as "Crossroads Picketing," which got motorists to honk horns in support. Educators waved signs at major school district crossroads in Richmond, San Pablo, El Cerrito and Hercules.
Due to the high cost of living in the Bay Area, district teachers are already among the lowest-paid in the East Bay.
At press time, no new bargaining dates were scheduled. Tensions were mounting in the 30,000-student district. Superintendent Bruce Harter angered teachers by going around the bargaining process and sending proposal letters regarding furlough days directly to teachers' homes, Hayward Schickele says.
"Should the district decide to actually make such a proposal, it will receive due consideration," she wrote in a letter she fired off to Harter. "In the meantime, your decision to try to deal directly with UTR's members can only be seen as an escalation in our dispute."
CTA lawyers filed an unfair labor practice charge over Harter's letter with the Public Employment Relations Board. It charges that Harter's letter "was attempting to coerce employees and to interfere with their exercise of protected rights by influencing the employees to pressure the union to take different positions at the bargaining table."
In his letter, Harter illegally proposed that teachers take five furlough days' worth of pay cuts to free up money to avoid drastic cuts in their health benefits. He wrote, "We're on the brink of a strike that will be disastrous for everyone and we need to talk."
"What he was offering is really a cut in pay, not furlough days," Hayward Schickele says. "We would work the same amount of time for less pay. Nobody else in the state is being asked to take these kinds of cuts — doing the same amount of work and losing the pay."
UTR members voted overwhelmingly in late August to allow their leaders to call a strike at any time, if necessary. The vote was a measure of the teachers' frustrations — 93 percent were in favor of strike authorization.