Berkeley Teachers Union Demands Contract Renewal

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday November 20, 2008 - 09:59:00 AM

Berkeley teachers rallied at 21 school sites throughout the city Tuesday, citing an urgent desire for an agreement on working hours, wages, health benefits and other contract provisions. 

Called “A Day of Teacher Action,” teachers waved posters and handed out flyers to passersby informing them of the 141-day delay in their contract renewal with the Berkeley Unified School District, something they charged was becoming a big distraction in their teaching and interactions with students. 

Cathy Campbell, president of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, said that although the union was aware of the economic constraints on the district, it wanted district officials to come to a swift and amiable agreement. 

Berkeley Unified Superintendent Bill Huyett said that although the district had yet to renew its contract with the union, it was still honoring the terms of the old contract. 

“We don’t make comments on on-going negotiations,” he said. “But I want to assure everybody that the old contract is still valid. The Berkeley Federation of Teachers is a very progressive organization and we always want to listen to their ideas. They are an important part of BUSD.” 

BFT’S contract, which was last renewed in May 2005 for three years, expired on June 30. 

“Most of the terms of the contract continue, but there is still a lot of uncertainty,” Campbell said. “We have an agreement for wages for 2008-09 but not for 2009-10. It’s mostly an issue of capacity. The contract has to be productive and timely—the longer it takes the more diversion it creates.” 

Some teachers said they were frustrated with the district’s lack of preparation during bargaining sessions, which they claimed often took time away from classrooms and resulted in unproductive workdays. 

Dale Long, a preschool teacher at King Child Development Center who is also on the union’s negotiating team, said that he often had to sacrifice time that could otherwise be spent with students because of unproductive negotiations. 

“We go prepared on a regular proposal but the district is ill-prepared to make counter proposals,” said Long, who was handing out flyers at the Derby Street farmers market late Tuesday afternoon. “The last session was four and a half hours long. The district spent three of those four and a half hours preparing for something they should have prepared for hours before the negotiations. It’s very frustrating because I have to take off from work sometimes and I feel I am doing the children a disservice.” 

Long acknowledged that although the district had made some progress during the course of their discussions with the union, the negotiations took a step backward when it was time to talk about a revenue-sharing formula, which would ensure that when the district receives a revenue boost, the teachers would be entitled to their fair share. 

“It worked well on our last contract,” he said. Cynthia Allman, a first grade teacher at Malcolm X Elementary School, agreed. 

“We know times are really tough so we are asking for a continuance of the revenue-sharing formula, so that when the district gets its money we can get our fair share,” she said. “We want to make sure the district is protected as well. We don’t want them to commit to something they don’t have.” 

Allman, who stood on Ashby Avenue along with several other teachers waving posters with “141” written on them as early as 8 a.m., said she was encouraged by the way the community had reacted to the demonstrations. 

Everyone is worried about the economy and the state budget,” she said, “but it still makes me wonder if the district really values our work.” 

Mary Wrenn, a teacher at Willard Middle School in Berkeley, said that teachers were beginning to feel the economic pinch as well. 

“We are really anxious to reach an agreement especially because these are such hard economic times,” Wrenn, who rallied before and after school hours, said. 

Berkeley Board of Education member Karen Hemphill said she was hopeful the district would be able to create a multi-year contract. 

“I understand the teachers are a little frustrated but we have the unusual situation of five union agreements opening up at the same time,” she said. “I think that’s a part of the reason why things are a little slow.” 

Hemphill said that more and more unions and school districts were looking at revenue sharing formulas in the face of a fluctuating economic scenario. 

“If we receive more money we will look into sharing with the union but we can’t promise anything now because if we don’t have any money, we can’t possibly share, Hemphill said. “It’s becoming more and more difficult now, especially with the proposed mid-year budget cuts.” 

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently proposed mid-year cuts to education funds which would leave Berkeley Unified with a $3.5 million deficit. 

Campbell said the next bargaining session was set for Monday, and then again a week later. “I don’t know what to expect but I am hopeful it will be a productive session,” she said.