Public Comment

Commentary: BUSD: Union Busting 101

By Tim Donnelly  
Thursday September 24, 2009 - 09:33:00 AM

We are the Berkeley Council of Classified Employees, representing 450 employees of the Berkeley Unified School District, the Office/Technical and Instructional Assistant/Paraprofessional Units. This essay is, by necessity, a little thick with initials. But our plight is simple enough to understand. We are being battered by an anti-worker administration. Our three main grievances are these; long-term employees kept in substitute status illegally, the illegal denial of information we need to enforce our contract, and a recent reorganization of Special Education that increases our workload threefold. 

The California Merit System is designed to eliminate cronyism, racism, sexism, ageism, and other unfair practices from the hiring of Classified staff (those positions that don’t require a teaching credential.) How is this working out in Berkeley Unified, a merit system district? Not so well. 

The intent of the merit system is to govern the hiring, retention and training of Classifieds. These rules are ignored throughout the district. Classified openings are everywhere filled by “substitutes”, volunteers, student workers, and private contractors. This is in blatant violation of our merit rules and our collective bargaining agreement. The high schools, preschools, and Special Education department are particularly egregious violators. 

Our merit rules permit only three ways to fill an open position: by transfer, permanent probationary or limited term assignments. 

When the schools keep “substitutes” in open positions, they create a second tier of the lowest paid employees in the District. These are overwhelmingly women of color working without benefits, paid sick time or vacation accrual. When contractors fill our positions, they are paid at two and three times our total compensation rate, squandering taxpayer resources. 

We have an astounding 13 pending grievances and four Unfair Labor Practice charges against the school district. Approximately a third of these entail the District refusing to provide us the information we need to represent our 450 members. This is in violation of our contract and all applicable laws. Put another way, they are breaking our contract to hide from us how much they are breaking our contract. 

Our contract language is very broad (as is the Labor Code.) Section 4.1.3 of the contract states, in its entirety: “The BCCE has the right to material that will enable it to fulfill its role as the sole bargaining agent.” 

Standard information requests that have been ignored, refused or indefinitely delayed include interim placement data for the winter, spring and summer breaks. We know that some substitutes have been placed and permanent employees denied these crucial temporary positions, but without knowing how many members applied, BCCE cannot know the extent of the contract violations. Our Unfair Labor Practice Charges pile up at the Public Employee Relations Board, the Board takes a month or two to even schedule a hearing, and the abuse continues. 

In years past, trainings taking place in August and September have been considered orientations, and BCCE was given time at these meetings to address our members. This is in keeping with contract section 4.1.14, which states in part that “...the Union will be allowed time at any orientation meetings to address the new members.” This year the union has been unilaterally disallowed, from addressing our members during the scheduled portion of these back-to-school trainings. The district says these aren’t orientations because they’re for longtime employees as well as new hires. They say the union may address members at the breaks. 

And what about this shell game called Universal Learning? Special Education Instructional Assistants are assigned in a way that mutes our voice in the workplace and erodes our contractual attendant differentials. An attendant differential is the extra five or ten percent of salary that an IA gets for toileting/hygene and health attendant duties. BCCE also believes universal learning cheats diagnosed special needs students of the consistency all learners deserve. Instructional Assistants are rotated in a random and disrespectful way; Administration calls this “cross-training” though no actual training takes place. 

The Universal Learning Support System was negotiated with the teachers’ union as a way of spreading special education resources to help students who are struggling but have no diagnosis. This looks good on paper, but the special education resources being stretched to the breaking point are the Instructional Assistants. We maintain that ULSS is extralegal until it is negotiated with the union that represents the instructional assistants. It may be extralegal on other grounds as well: parents of students with special needs have complained that their children aren’t getting the support to which their individual education plans entitles them. 

We encourage the people of Berkeley to investigate the Universal Learning Support System as it is practised. We warn the people of Berkeley that privatization of public services, such as charter schools, decreases accountability. And we implore the community of Berkeley to tell this Board of Education and this Superintendent that they must honor their legally negotiated contracts. They may not balance the budget on the backs of their lowest-paid employees. 

The 2009-2010 school year will not be an easy one. Our public service budgets are slashed to the bone. For many of us, our family budgets are also grim. BCCE sees the contract violations listed here, and others not listed, as a strike against our very right to exist. And we want the community of Berkeley to understand this when and if we are forced to strike back.