Bargaining During COVID-19
By Julian Peeples
CTA locals focus on safety, students and equity
The Marysville Unified Teachers Association (MUTA) bargaining team entered negotiations in March absolutely unified in the demand that their students be held harmless from any impacts of COVID-19, receiving grades no lower than what they had earned before schools abruptly shuttered.
“I’ve been heavily involved in my local union for years, but the passion we felt to protect our students was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced at the table,” says Angela Stegall, president of MUTA. “We let the district know this ‘hold harmless’ aspect of our proposed agreement was nonnegotiable, and it’s now in our memorandum of understanding (MOU).”
“We were able to negotiate teacher flexibility and freedom on instruction delivery, and instructional time flexibility based on teacher knowledge and students’ capabilities.”
—Alex Vogel, Whittier Elementary Teachers Association
CTA locals across the state initiated negotiations with their school districts to protect educators and students when the COVID-19 pandemic changed teaching and learning conditions overnight.
Bargaining teams met virtually with district administrators to work toward MOUs that set parameters and expectations for the remainder of the school year — all while educators worked to meet the new and changing demands of teaching, dealt with their own COVID-related issues and trauma, helped their children enter the world of distance learning, and cared for family members vulnerable to the virus.
“On top of those issues, we also had the added stress of having to deal with the district dragging their feet when we were trying to mutually agree on an MOU for distance learning,” says Alex Vogel, bargaining chair of Whittier Elementary Teachers Association (WETA). “We were able to negotiate teacher flexibility and freedom on instruction delivery, and instructional time flexibility based on teacher knowledge and students’ capabilities. We were also able to negotiate language for all members, including special educators, TOSAs, school psychologists, speech-language pathologists, counselors and regular classroom teachers.”
Protections for all
Lodi Education Association (LEA) President Michelle Orgon requested guidance just as the decision was made to close schools in mid-March. During a meeting with the district’s executive cabinet, Orgon says, the Lodi Unified superintendent was certain school would resume within a few weeks, and she assured educators that the district had ordered a sufficient amount of personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect staff and students.
But when Orgon learned the order had already been canceled, it was a sign of the tumultuous negotiations to come. LEA and the district eventually negotiated two separate agreements — one that addressed initial issues of holding students harmless and outlining distance learning parameters, and a second MOU to address hours and working conditions, as well as other issues arising from district administration’s unilateral directives to staff.
“We thought we had things relatively well covered in the first MOU,” she says. “But then the district created several COVID task forces, some which lacked proper representation for educators and other bargaining unit staff.”
In rural Modoc County, located in the northeast corner of the state, Modoc Teachers Association (MTA) President Katie Copp says impacts from the pandemic have been less significant than in more populous areas, but serious nonetheless. MTA began negotiations immediately with Modoc Joint Unified School District to protect their members, securing agreements to protect educators’ health, safety and financial security.
“We made sure that those who were on leave were returned to paid status and that members were not required to go into school except for necessary school duties,” Copp says. “We asked for rooms to be deep-cleaned and sanitized after each member had gone into their classrooms.”
Some difficult negotiations When locals went into these negotiations with agreement language from CTA that protects educators and students, they expected school district administrators to share their priorities. In many cases, this was not true. Copp says the district delayed and dragged on the negotiations for three weeks, showing no urgency in ensuring educators and students had the protections they needed.
“In the end, we did agree to the basics of the MOU in regard to cleaning of classrooms, provisions for hand sanitizer, a 48-hour return notice, and a return to full pay for those on leave,” says Copp, noting that the district refused to agree to conditions to return to school, asserting that administrators would make the decision based on recommendations from state and county health officials. “We always worked really well together in supporting each other on the sides of administrators, teachers and students, so it came as a huge surprise when the district pushed back on the idea of needing an MOU to extend protections to our staff.”
In Whittier, Vogel says his team faced the same delaying tactics from district administrators, who seemed more interested in getting opinions from their legal counsel than acting quickly to protect educators and students. WETA responded to district proposals within 48 hours, while administration would often take as long as five days, he says. And then the district released a distance learning plan without any input from WETA educators, prompting a cease-and-desist letter from Vogel. Even then, he says, district administration didn’t seem to understand they needed to work with educators.
“We thought we were going to have to organize by initiating talks with the school board,” Vogel says. “Just when we thought it was time, the district indicated an interest in coming to a much-needed agreement.”
One happy ending
But not all negotiations went south. Orcutt Educators Association (OEA) was organizing for a big contract fight after 10 negotiation sessions led to the declaration of impasse earlier this year. More than 100 members attended a school board meeting on March 10 to show that educators were united in their struggle.
“And then March 13 came and everything stopped,” says OEA President Monique Segura. “We had a 2.5 percent on-schedule raise on the table from the district. We literally settled our contract the next week and were able to get class size cap language for kindergarten classes.”
Segura marvels at the quick change in direction by district administration. Only eight weeks after declaring impasse, the two sides worked together amicably to address distance learning and other COVID-related issues. Segura credits the district’s flexibility and willingness to partner with educators.
“I am hopeful that this continues with our new superintendent,” Segura says. “There’s going to be lots of bargaining. Health and safety issues, working hours and conditions — some of us are working 18-hour days, and we need some balance. There are a lot of moving parts!”
Advice for bargaining COVID-related issues
“ There will be trying times ahead. Be persistent and don’t give up, because your members are depending on you. Decide your priorities, what is worth fighting for and what you can do without. Once you come to those decisions, be firm, but at the same time be willing to allow for some flexibility to have the necessary language that your members require during these difficult times.”
— ALEX VOGEL, Whittier Elementary Teachers Association
“Don’t give up, no matter what! It is our job to provide added protections for our teachers and make sure that their rights are taken seriously. We also need to be a voice to those members who are afraid to voice their opinions to their districts with regard to their safety and protection. Also, keep advocating for your teachers to have a vote or be part of any decision about what programs your district is planning for the future. Make your voices heard!”
— KATIE COPP, Modoc Teachers Association
“You really have to look at the greater good, which is our future and our children. Reach out an olive branch and work together with your district. Try to think outside the box when it comes to your students. It will benefit you as well.”
— MONIQUE SEGURA, Orcutt Educators Association
“Take a step back and breathe. This is all new to everyone. Hold your ground as best as possible in negotiations. It’s going to be a lot of work, but lock arms and march together as a group toward what’s best for our members, students and community.”
— MICHELLE ORGON, Lodi Education Association