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October 3, 2017: Fresno Teachers Association (FTA) holds a strike vote; only 20 out of 3,000 members vote against it. No one wants a strike, but FTA is willing to take this step for a contract that better serves the 74,000 students of Fresno Unified School District. Ultimately, a strike is averted.

October 10, 2018: FTA and the district hold a historic joint labor and management meeting, after which FTA has a new contract, with an 8.5 percent salary increase and a promise to reduce class sizes.

To reach this point has been a journey, FTA President Manuel Bonilla said. Both parties knew they had to get beyond the acrimony for their students’ sake. “In our community, the poverty level is about 80 percent,” he said. “For those students, education is beyond just knowledge — it’s life or death. We need to serve them as a system, not just as teachers or administrators. We need to work together.”

Bonilla explains how FTA, the district and the community were able to collaborate and cooperate, and the lessons he learned along the way:

Find common ground

Advocacy Fresno
During a historic meeting, Fresno Teachers Association site representatives and district administrators brainstormed ways they can better work together.

Three members of district leadership and three members of union leadership met with a conflict resolution team at Fresno Pacific University, known for strong programs in teacher education and peacemaking and conflict resolution. Through that process, we agreed we had the same goals. We want to serve our students and our community, which has one of the highest concentrations of poverty in America, and we agreed that finding solutions together would have a better impact. So that became our foundation going forward.

Expand the circle

To allow everyone to participate and share their voice, we had to expand our circle. The district invited the union to the principals’ institute and cabinet meetings. We invited the superintendent and his staff to our Representative Council. We invited all school site representatives to bargaining meetings — that way we could see that issues that come up to the leadership level are probably systemwide, not just site-based. When teachers realized they were being heard, more came forward to share their ideas.

Listen and act

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FTA and Fresno Unified School District understood they had common goals: to serve their students and their community.

We set up meetings to talk to the parents, teachers, students and community at all seven high schools and each of the middle and elementary schools. We asked them what their issues were. What did they want to see? Lower class sizes came up time and again, as did more social and emotional supports, and we put these into bargaining language for the contract. Now the contract was seen in the right light — as a direct means to improve education, not just as a business transaction.

You can’t just listen. You must take action, and that won over the community. It also got teachers more excited. Teachers hadn’t been involved with the union in the past, because they didn’t see its role in the day-to-day work of the profession. Now they were seeing how the contract was interwoven into education. They were getting involved, and we made sure their voices were heard.

Be totally transparent

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Fresno Teachers Association President Manuel Bonilla (left) and Fresno Unified Superintendent Bob Nelson.

We had a core bargaining team that worked during school hours, but we also had an evening team so teachers could hear what was going on with the process. At the first meeting, maybe 150 educators showed up. By the next, it grew to 400, and to 900 the next time. It just grew and grew. Everyone was invested. Everyone felt like they had a voice. We shared bargaining updates on social media to communicate with members, but also with the community.

We were breaking the narrative that collective bargaining is about partisan issues and showing that it is about improving education.

Give professionals the voice they deserve

Beyond wanting to be treated as professionals, we heard from our educators that they need to understand the district’s vision. They want clear expectations and a full picture of where we’re going. They want more communication and to feel that their time and expertise are valued and taken into account.

“We were breaking the narrative that collective bargaining is about partisan issues and showing that it is about improving education.”

— Manuel Bonilla, Fresno Teachers Association president

I don’t think every single educator feels now as if their voice is being heard, but we planted a seed of hope. Are we having great conversations at the district level and leadership level? Yes, but until it filters down all the way to the classroom, we are not done. We’ve begun the journey. Everyone feels like this is new and different. The question is, what will show that it’s different? Hopefully we’ll see that through the actions we take over the course of this contract.

Stay union strong

Advocacy Fresno
In October 2017, FTA membership had voted overwhelmingly to strike.

Had we not taken a strike vote, had we not been unified and engaged with our members, we wouldn’t be here. The district leadership needed to know that teachers were speaking with a unified voice. Until you do that, they have no real motivation to bargain seriously. The only reason I was able to be in that room to have those tough conversations was because I knew we had the power of the membership behind me.

Going forward, we must keep the members engaged to keep the union strong. That’s how we serve our students and schools.

Photos by Cynthia Menzel. A version of this story appeared on