Contract negotiations between nearly 4,000 educators and the Fresno Unified School District (FUSD) have reached a breaking point. Teachers in the district are poised to go on strike, demanding better working conditions and improved resources for their students. This move, though regrettable, is seen as essential by many to safeguard the well-being of teachers and the quality of education for Fresno's children. The strike vote is set for Wednesday, October 18th. Supporters of Fresno teachers are urged to wear blue in solidarity.
Negotiations Timeline Leading to Strike Vote
FUSD experienced its last teacher strike in 1977, which lasted for two weeks and ultimately resulted in the first agreement between the district and its teachers union, the Fresno Teachers Association (FTA). Now, more than 4 decades later, educators are continuing to advocate for better working conditions, competitive salaries, and improved educational resources. In the most recent round of negotiations, FUSD and the FTA have been engaged in lengthy discussions for nearly a year.
The timeline leading up to the strike vote is as follows:
- November 2022: The FTA and FUSD exchanged their bargaining interests.
- April, 2023: FUSD Superintendent Bob Nelson complains about the FTA’s use of traditional bargaining methods in negotiations. He claims time and energy spent bargaining this way could be better spent on issues like salary and benefits. The FTA insists on continuing to negotiate for student support initiatives in addition to increased pay and other issues.
- May 2023: The FTA presents its final offer in negotiations and gives the district a deadline to reach a deal.
- September, 2023: FUSD and the FTA participated in a fact-finding panel and hearing before the state Public Employment Relations Board (PERB). Later that month, the deadline passed for the school district to agree on a contract or face a strike vote.
- October 18, 2023: The strike vote will take place, as negotiations have not yielded substantial progress.
The Teacher's Demands
The FTA has put forth a list of demands aimed at improving working conditions and fostering a better learning environment for students:
- Competitive Salaries: Teachers are asking for more competitive salaries to attract and retain qualified educators and to keep up with the high cost of living. Currently, the median yearly income of teachers in the district is around $60,000. The FTA is demanding a raise of 7.26% for the previous year and 8.2% for the following 3 years to match the Cost-of-Living Adjustment (COLA)
- Lifetime Benefits: The FTA wants lifetime benefits for educators who have devoted 20+ years to the district. This program used to be in effect for teachers but it ended in 2005. Prior to the end of this program, many educators (including Superintendent Nelson) qualified for and benefitted from these benefits.
- Classroom Sizes: One of the primary concerns is reducing class sizes to provide a more personalized and effective learning environment. Smaller classes allow teachers to give individual attention to each student. To this end, the FTA is demanding a new system of stricter class size caps that would keep the district from overburdening teachers.
- Student-Support Initiatives: The FTA has proposed initiatives to deliver long-needed resources to students. These include clothing and school supplies for students, food pantries for student families, mandatory and free tutoring for certain underperforming students, free after school programs at elementary schools, extensive support for homeless students and students in foster care, free wellness programs for students and families, and more.
The District's Arguments Against Teacher Demands
FUSD has raised concerns about the feasibility of some of the teacher's demands. Their arguments against these demands include:
- Competitive Salaries: The district claims that meeting all of the teacher's demands would place a significant financial burden on the district. The FTA says that the district has more money now than in its history. Additionally, the district's salary proposal of 19% over the next three years would fail to offset inflation and pays less than the COLA.
- Lifetime Benefits: The district proposes to reduce its contribution to the health care fund by $3,000 per employee in order to pay for their aforementioned salary proposal. The benefits proposal from the district offers employees at or above age 57-and-a-half who have worked for the district for 20+ years coverage for 7.5 years after they retire.
- Classroom Sizes: Rather than implementing a new system of caps to prevent large class sizes, FUSD has chosen to continue to focus on class size ratios, with stipends for overburdened teachers. Under this system, class sizes could continue to reach 30+ students.
- Student-Support Initiatives: While initially reluctant to work with the FTA on this issue, FUSD has agreed to a plan for collaboration on how to spend $30 million over the next three years on projects to support students.
The Importance of Strikes for Teachers and Students
While strikes are not a desirable outcome, they often serve as a last resort for educators who feel their demands are not being heard or addressed. Teacher strikes can be a powerful tool for improving working conditions and ensuring that students receive a high-quality education.
Strikes are crucial for many reasons. They are a great way to raise awareness to the public and bring attention to the critical issues teachers face in their daily work and draw public support for better educational conditions. This awareness extends to education quality for students. While strikes may disrupt education temporarily, they ultimately aim to improve the educational experience for students by addressing issues such as class size and resource availability.
Strikes also serve as leverage for negotiation. They create leverage that forces school districts to address teachers' concerns and come to a resolution that benefits both parties. Due to the work and collaboration that goes into the process of planning and organizing this leverage, strikes foster unity among educators. This unity strengthens the collective voice of teachers and empowers them to advocate for improved teaching conditions.
The upcoming strike vote is a clear sign of Fresno teachers’ dedication to creating a better educational environment for students. The hope is that this collective action will result in meaningful changes that benefit both teachers and students alike, ultimately leading to a stronger educational system in Fresno.