Maria Vazquez and Jennifer Hawkish at the Jan. 28 candlelight vigil.
Only a few hours before they were set to walk picket lines in an unfair labor practices strike, the 354 members of the National City Elementary Teachers Association learned that instead they would be going back to their classrooms that day. Following 18 hours of intense negotiations, the NCETA’s bargaining team inked a temporary agreement with the National School District at 2:30 a.m., Friday, Feb. 4. On Feb. 10, 97 percent of the union’s membership ratified the new contract, ending a full year of protracted, difficult bargaining for this south San Diego County chapter.
“Of course, a strike was the last thing National City teachers wanted,” says NCETA President Linda Cartwright. “So we are extremely pleased to avert that kind of disruption by settling the contract. But it shouldn’t have come down to the wire like it did. We knew all along that some concessions were necessary during the current economic difficulties. We made numerous conciliatory offers, but each one was pushed back across the table.”
The new three-year contract includes four teacher pay cut days in each year with restoration language that could result in fewer cut days if the district’s attendance-based “revenue limit” funding increases beyond a certain level in the final two years. Class sizes in the district will be maintained at 22 to 1 in kindergarten through third grade and 33 to 1 in grades 4-6 during the contract’s first two years. The agreement also restores association leave and guarantees association input on hours of employment and transfer and reassignment language.
Contract talks began February of last year with the district declaring impasse in March after only four bargaining sessions. At the same time, National City Superintendent of Schools Chris Oram stated both in public and in writing that the district had not made its final offer, clearly an unfair labor practice under California labor law. Last July, the district insisted on fact-finding, but when the teachers accepted the recommended settlement, the district not only rejected the report, but came back with even harsher proposals, followed by an imposition that ultimately forced the union’s strike vote.
The imposed conditions unilaterally cut five student instruction days plus an additional prep day for teachers, and gave the district leeway to increase class sizes to 30 to 1 in primary grades and 34 to 1 in upper grades. It also stripped contract language with no fiscal impact, including teachers’ rights to negotiate the school calendar, job transfer and reassignment, and leave for association business. In addition, the district unilaterally targeted first-year teachers, refusing to follow the past practice of not charging for the Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment (BTSA) program.
National City Elementary School Teachers Association members at the vigil hope that they’ll remain in the classroom with their students without disruption.
“The district’s financial statement clearly indicated their ability to settle,” Cartwright says. “But only after we organized our membership and large numbers of parents and community supporters to put pressure on the district did they finally capitulate. Their last-hour agreement to a reasonable settlement could have come months ago, minus all the frustration and anxiety for our members, our students and their families.”
NCETA members and supporters organized and implemented a variety of advocacy tactics during the bargaining crisis, including several social media strategies (see sidebar). On Jan. 26, a crowd of more than 350 packed a school board meeting, with scores of parents demanding a fair contract for the teachers. Then a massive rally and march on Jan. 28 along a busy National City street near a freeway culminated in a candlelight vigil with more than 400 participants in front of the school board president’s home.
“Our efforts to mobilize our members, our parents and our community supporters were vital to our success,” says Cartwright, “and we are now in the process of evaluating our organizational capacity to mount a campaign to elect new and more supportive school board members.”
How social media can help organize