Berkeley School Employees Rally for New Contract

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Friday September 12, 2008 - 10:59:00 AM
Workers marched from Berkeley Technology Academy to school district headquarters Wednesday to demand contract renewals and pay raises.
Riya Bhattacharjee
Workers marched from Berkeley Technology Academy to school district headquarters Wednesday to demand contract renewals and pay raises.

More than 150 workers from the Berkeley Council of Classified Employees (BCCE) and their supporters filled the Old City Hall lawn and chambers Wednesday to rally for contract renewals and demand pay raises for the Berkeley Unified School District’s classified unions. 

School secretaries, bus drivers, gardeners, computer technicians and several dozen classified workers, angry over the lack of progress in talks with district officials, marched from Berkeley Technology Academy to the district’s headquarters at 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way shouting, “No Contract, No peace!” 

“Escucha, escucha, estamos en la lucha” (“Listen, listen, we are in the struggle”) filled the air as the angry marchers waved signs and walked past Berkeley High School around 6:30 p.m., drawing honks and shouts of approval from passing cars. 

Among those who took part in the rally were the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 39, the Berkeley Firefighters’ Local 1227 and the Berkeley Federation of Teachers. 

“Our last pay raise was for the 2006-07 school year,” said BCCE President Tim Donnelly, speaking on behalf of his union. “Our expenses have not frozen with our salaries. We need a salary offer and we need the cost of one percent. We are without a contract and we have spent over 40 hours in negotiations and the only thing they have agreed upon is to give a one day holiday before Thanksgiving.” 

District Superintendent Bill Huyett said that although the district had not come to an agreement about a new contract it continues to honor the previous one. 

“I want classification workers to be treated fairly and I, for one, have always called them educators,” he said. “We have had differences about compensation but we should never lose sight of their work. These are tough economic times for everyone. Tough for the school district and tough for our employees. We do not have all of the students we projected this year and we will be reducing our budget in the fall.” 

Huyett said Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger—who had proposed budget cuts for state education funds earlier this year—had yet to announce a budget for the fiscal year that began July 1. 

“There’s no budget on the horizon and there may not be a budget for a year,” he said. “We will know more in two to four weeks.” 

Donnelly said BCCE presented contract proposals to the Berkeley Board of Education in October 2007, following which the district returned with an “extremely vague document indicating which sections of the contract they would negotiate.” 

Starting on Dec. 6, union members met 12 times with the district’s bargaining team. 

“Specific proposals from the district’s team were presented one or two at a time,” Donnelly said. “Many were sloppily prepared. There were times when the district team had no proposals or counter-proposals at all. We asked all along for a salary offer. None came. In June we declared impasse. And for the second time in two years, a mediator was appointed by the state of California.” 

Union representatives and BUSD officials met with the state mediator on July 28 and the session, Donnelly said, was spent “catching up.” 

A second mediation session was held Sept. 4. 

“We agreed to meet five weeks later so that the district could bring us financial data,” Donnelly said. “They didn’t have the data and didn’t bother to notify us about it.” 

BCCE filed an Unfair Labor Practice charge this week in response to this. 

Kris Amaral, a business representative with Local 39, the union which represents carpenters, safety officers, food service workers and other skilled trade employees in the district, said that the classified unions were hoping for a multi-year contract which would provide workers with some stability. 

“We are all working for the same employer which keeps telling us they can’t give us any budget numbers until the governor signs the budget.” 

“Our union members are the lowest paid in their classification in the Bay Area.” 

Amaral said some part-time food service workers made only $12 to $14 an hour. 

“It’s hard to raise a family here on that kind of money and most take up two jobs,” she said.  

Most of the union workers said the rising price of gas and health insurance made it difficult for them to make ends meet. 

“We feel like we are being ignored,” said Deborah Howe, a library media technician at Rosa Parks Elementary School. 

“We are the backbone of the district and we feel we are being taken for granted. I thin people will be shocked to hear how much we do get paid. We don’t work in the summer so it’s even more hard for us.” 

Johnny Bilups, who has driven schools buses for Berkeley Unified since 1972, said wages for the district’s bus drivers started at $16 per hour and topped at $21 per hour. 

“We are not an add-on, we are not an afterthought,” he said. 

“We have built this district from the foundation up. We have families, we have desires. We like to go out and eat, maybe twice a year. We have not kept up with the inflation. We have not kept up with the times. I will not be relegated to an administrative role in the district while managers grow fat and prosperous.” 

Paula Phillips, an administrative assistant to the district’s Personnel Commission who is also running for BCCE president this year, stirred the crowd with her speech to the school board. 

“You may ask who we are,” she began, prompting the marchers sitting in the council chambers to stand up one by one. 

“We are the bus drivers and mechanics who ensure the safety of your child ... We are the secretaries who greet the parents every day, the food service employees who prepare your children's meals, the custodians who clean your schools everyday, the safety officers who ensure a safe haven for everyone ... Collectively we are the present but invisible force and without us you cannot function.” 

Several union workers complained about the district’s inability to finish the classification study and urged their peers to stop working extra hours. 

“I have put in more time than I am paid for but today I am telling myself and you ‘do not put in more hours than you get paid for,’” said Ann Marie Callegari, another union worker. 

The district’s Assistant Superintendent Lisa Udell said a consultant was working on a classification study which helps to provide comparable salaries for union workers.