By Dina Martin
Elk Grove Education Association members picket in front of the district office.
It took a massive march by 1,500 members, regular protests in front of the district office, and long mediation and fact-finding sessions, but in the end, the Elk Grove Education Association overwhelmingly approved a negotiated settlement that preserves class sizes in grades K-3 and health benefits and saves the jobs of 68 teachers who would have been laid off.
“We now have a lot more people involved in the association,” says EGEA President Maggie Ellis. “We can thank the district for that. They have wakened the giant.”
The new contract retains health benefits by implementing a cost-sharing plan in which members will pick up 20 percent of the premium costs for their health care. The district dropped its demand for a cap on health care premiums. The association also negotiated a wellness program that will give participating members a 5 percent rebate if they undergo a physical with age-appropriate screenings and complete an online health assessment.
An increase in class sizes in grades 4-6 will allow the district to bring back 68 teachers who would have been laid off, while the work week will be reduced from 39 hours to 38½ hours, and group meeting time will be reduced from 90 minutes a week to 60 minutes.
Still, it was a bittersweet victory for the 3,000-member association, which was forced to abandon its history of interest-based bargaining (IBB) with an emphasis on collaboration, and instead began to use strong-arm tactics to obtain an agreement.
“We had 25 years of interest-based bargaining and always came to an agreement. In bad times, you try to meet each other’s needs. You don’t throw out decades of relationships,” Ellis says.
Dynamics between the district and the association apparently began changing several years ago when the district’s superintendent brought in a new chief financial officer and a new attorney. Soon, the EGEA negotiating team began to see deterioration in the district’s long-standing commitment to IBB. Instead of bargaining based on mutual respect and collaboration, EGEA found itself at a table where the law was being used as a weapon and heading toward contract imposition by the district.
In true union form, however, association members didn’t mourn. They organized. In a march that brought CTA Vice President Eric C. Heins to town, EGEA staged a New Orleans-style “funeral” complete with coffins marking the death of interest-based bargaining. Police closed down a local street to facilitate more than 1,500 members walking to the school district office in protest. That evening, 260 pink-slipped teachers faced the school board, and each of them tossed a pink paper rose into a coffin as their name and years of service were called aloud. Gasps from the crowd could be heard as some with 20 years of service stepped forward, demonstrating the impact the board decisions were having on students and employees.
EGEA members picketed the district offices on a daily basis, even through pouring rainstorms. Meanwhile, many members pledged to “work to contract” and withheld such volunteer activity as advising clubs and providing after-school tutoring. In the process, not only did their students and parents realize how much the teachers contributed freely, but teachers realized it for themselves.
“Instead of staying after school for hours on end, they went home to help their own children,” Ellis says. “They realized it’s also important to take care of themselves.”
Even with a new contract, there is still a lot of organizing to do. Ellis is angry that the contract had been reopened by the district in the first place. Instead of arguing over health care costs that had already been paid for and ignoring the intent of the mediated contract, the district and association could have been bargaining for next year.
As it is, EGEA is not only looking at the 2013-14 contract, but next year’s school board race, where four board members are up for election.
“We’re not done,” Ellis says. “For the first time in 20 years, the membership has approved a PAC for school board races. We are all going to be actively participating. This giant will not go back to sleep.”
Next article: Meet your local negotiators
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