Volume 14, Issue 3
By Bill Guy
Unity, determination and skillful organizing strategies combined to give the 2,100 members of south San Diego County's Sweetwater Education Association (SEA) a new contract settlement in the midst of difficult economic times.
In addition to using more traditional communications methods including printed fliers and one-on-one meetings at building sites, SEA kept members and the community constantly informed via almost daily website updates. Communications efforts also broke new ground by coordinating traditional methods with updates via social networking websites, including an association page on Facebook and bargaining strategy "tweets" via an association Twitter account.
Efforts to exert pressure on the board of the Sweetwater Union High School District (SUHSD) began in August, with SEA members picketing school board members' homes each Saturday, leafleting their neighbors with requests that they support SEA's contract settlement proposals.
"SEA members and our supporters took almost complete control of a SUHSD school board meeting Sept. 21, 2009, by stacking the public comments portion, making it impossible for them to begin their actual business session until almost 10 p.m.," says SEA President Alex Anguiano. "Taking that board meeting over was the first time that the school board 'got it' that we were serious about going all the way and that we weren't going to let them off the hook."
A powerful turnout for the Oct. 7 fact-finding session marked SEA's culminating activity. More than 1,200 SEA members and supporters from the San Diego County Labor Council, CTA/NEA-Retired, and practically every classified and certificated local in the county were present to support the effort. Association fact-finding team members reported that the noise generated by picketers marching outside the district office gave them tremendous support. It turned out to be sorely needed encouragement during the marathon negotiating session that lasted almost 24 hours until the teams reached a tentative contract agreement around dawn the next day.
Parents proved to be valuable supporters. SEA members actively sought parent support by going out into the community to inform parents of the labor dispute and the stakes involved. Parents responded with tangible support by speaking for a fair settlement at school board meetings and attending rallies. One parent complained bitterly about the almost $28,000 expenditure by the district for sending letters to parents regarding bargaining.
Not only does the three-year agreement ratified in October wipe out egregious take-backs illegally imposed by the district, but the beefy 95 percent approval rate of voting members leaves SEA in a strong position to tackle its next goal — turning over three anti-teacher members on SUHSD's board and those school administrators who fomented the unnecessarily difficult bargaining process.
"The school board behaved dishonorably in negotiations and must be held accountable in the November 2010 elections," says Anguiano, citing the board's unacceptable "last, best offer" impositions, which included a permanent increase in pupil-to-teacher class ratios, a two-tiered benefit plan that discriminated against new hires, the elimination of the adult school's break stipend, the unilateral cancellation of a contract article related to a school's ability to set its own unique schedule, and the insertion of a management rights article that would have weakened association member rights.
"When the district engaged in only perfunctory bargaining sessions before illegally imposing their unacceptable offer — without even waiting for the fact-finding teams to be selected — it was obvious they intended to take advantage of the difficult economy to gouge out take-backs, decimating the integrity of our contract," says Anguiano. "But instead of rolling over, SEA members and our supporters rolled out an extremely effective series of communication and organizing strategies that resulted in SEA's ultimate success."
SEA members plan to keep up the momentum generated by their bargaining success to go after the seats of the three school board members they believe have given up their responsibility for oversight and authority to Superintendent Jesus Gandara by condoning his unprofessional and hostile behavior toward the district's employees.
"By allowing Gandara and other school administrators to treat teachers unprofessionally and uncivilly, they fostered a totally unnecessary situation that caused employer-employee relations in this district to hit a low not seen since the teacher strike in 1981," says Anguiano.
"We have always known that these are difficult economic times and that they are likely to continue for several years. This settlement not only protects the integrity of SEA members' contract, but the struggle to achieve it has surfaced new leaders in our association, resulting in a membership strong and unified to face future challenges."