Fresno teachers voted overwhelmingly this week to authorize a strike over their contract talks with the Fresno Unified School District. But that doesn’t mean a strike is imminent, or even a foregone conclusion.
Despite Tuesday night’s vote, both the district and the Fresno Teachers Association must follow a carefully choreographed dance of negotiation and fact-finding that could last for a month or more before teachers can legally walk from their classrooms to picket lines.
“Fact finding is absolutely designed to be excruciating and slow and ongoing,” Fresno Unified Superintendent Bob Nelson said. “A strike is a big deal for a community, so the idea is to bring the parties together to achieve some sort of settlement.”
According to state law, a three-member fact-finding panel – comprised of one representative from the school district, one from the teachers’ union and a neutral chairperson upon whom both sides agree – will study the contract proposals and counter-proposals and hear arguments from the two sides. The chairperson will then issue a report with recommended terms for settlement. That report, however, is nonbinding and may be rejected by either side.
The schools are going to be open and staffed. We still plan to keep our schools open and safe (during a strike).
Bob Nelson, Fresno Unified School District superintendent
“We’ll begin fact-finding soon,” Jon Bath, the union’s negotiating chairman, told teachers Tuesday before the strike vote. He estimated that the entire process could take until early to mid-November.
“It might even be after Thanksgiving. It’s out of our hands,” Bath added. “But once that report comes out, we can officially strike.”
The union and the district have already agreed on the neutral chairperson: Renée Mayne, a dispute-resolution expert from Grass Valley who is among a list of arbitrators and mediators recognized as neutral by the state Public Employment Relations Board. Mayne has worked in the past as an advocate and negotiator for labor unions as well as an executive for public agencies.
The negotiations themselves have been slow and ongoing, since the previous three-year contract for the district’s 3,800 teachers expired in June 2016. A new deal, if one gets approved, would be retroactive to July 2016 and run through June 2019.
The key points of contention are class sizes, teacher pay and health insurance costs.
FTA negotiators want the contract to include language that caps class sizes at ratios ranging from 24 students per teacher in kindergarten to a maximum of 30 students in high school. In classes that exceed those caps, they want the district pay teachers an extra $5 per day per student. The district’s proposal calls for reducing class sizes in the middle and high school grades, and reducing student-teacher ratios at high schools in core class areas such as English, math and science. The proposal would provide extra pay for teachers in core classes when class sizes exceed 37 students in middle and high schools.
Teachers are also asking for a 3.5 percent pay raise retroactive to July 2016, when the last contract ran out, as well as 3 percent raises for the current 2017-18 year and the 2018-19 year. The district’s latest offer, presented to the union on Saturday, provides a 3.5 percent raise for 2016-17, but there is no money on the table for 2017-18 or 2018-19, said Paul Idsvoog, the district’s lead negotiator and human resources director. Instead, the proposal allows for negotiation to be reopened for salary issues in 2017-18 and 2018-19.
The union also wants the school district to cover 95 percent of the cost of teachers’ health insurance premiums with a maximum out-of-pocket cost for premiums of $1,250 for a single teacher or $2,500 for a family plan. Teachers also want the district to guarantee that co-payments for medical procedures and expenses would not rise beyond where they will be in November 2017. The district’s proposal is to cover 90 percent of the insurance premiums with language that premiums would remain the same through the term of the contract. A summary of the proposal by the district does not address co-payments.
What happens now?
Fresno Unified is the fourth largest school district in the state, with nearly 74,000 students. The last time the district had a teacher strike was in 1978, and it lasted eight days. Nearly 40 years later, both sides hope that a walkout can be averted.
Nelson likened Tuesday’s strike vote at Peoples Church in northeast Fresno to a shot across the bow of the district. “It sends a message to all parties that folks are serious,” he said. “We are committed to finding a solution. … I’m still confident that all the way through fact-finding we’ll continue to talk.”
The most recent negotiating session between the district and the union was on Saturday, and the two sides are expected to meet again on Friday.
“We will certainly be willing to meet with (the district) again and try and get it done because we don’t want to strike,” Bath said Tuesday. “But we will if we have to.”
If the two sides remain at loggerheads after the fact-finding report, however, both sides are prepared for what happens next.
We will certainly be willing to meet with (the district) again and try and get it done because we don’t want to strike. But we will if we have to.
Jon Bath, Fresno Teachers Association negotiating team chairman
District leaders said that while they hope to avoid a strike, they are making plans to hire substitutes at $500 a day to keep schools open if teachers walk out. “The schools are going to be open and staffed,” Nelson said.
The district’s normal pay for substitutes is $120 to $140 a day. The higher $500 rate for a strike, Nelson said, is needed because “it’s going to be hard to cross a contentious picket line.” The cost for the higher rate would be offset because the regular teachers would not be paid for the days they are on strike. Nelson said that between pay, benefits and retirement credits, the average pay for teachers is nearly $500 a day, but substitutes don’t receive health insurance, retirement credit or other nonsalary benefits.
But the higher substitute pay isn’t sitting well with the teachers. FTA President Tish Rice said the $500 rate rankled many of her members “because that’s more than they get paid” and likely contributed to Tuesday evening’s pro-strike enthusiasm.
The union hopes to leverage public opinion among parents and the broader Fresno community into pressure on the district’s negotiators and the board of trustees – who are ultimately responsible for approving a contract – to move closer to the teachers’ demands.
When Rice asked the overflow crowd of more than 2,000 union members to vote, the vast majority stood and shouted their “yes” votes for the strike authorization, compared to a few dozen who stood to vote no.
Moments after the vote, the crowd broke into a cheers and began chanting, “FTA, FTA.” They also shouted, “We are ready,” as a videographer captured the scene.
Rice said she was pleased to see the enthusiasm that teachers had for the strike vote.
“I think people realize that this is the time for change, that for so long their voices have been muted,” she said. “They’ve been demoralized. They just put their heads down and are in survival mode, and they realize now that through collective action, we can impact and change the district for the betterment of our professionals and our students and families that we serve.”