On Friday, October 20, after a 12 hour bargaining marathon, UESF and SFUSD came to a historic tentative agreement. After having bargained since March, the powerful “big bargaining team” of UESF was able to build upon the momentum of thousands of educators showing they were ready to do whatever it took to win the public schools San Francisco students and families deserved. Throughout the campaign, UESF went through a shift in its internal culture from only focusing on representational support to becoming a union focused on organizing. From signature gathering to informational pickets, rallies to signing strike commitment votes, the members learned to use one on one conversations to build unity and solidarity.
At the end of the campaign, UESF members had elected a union building representative (UBR), which is similar to a shop steward, at 100% of school sites. More than 60 rank and file educator leaders were trained in negotiations and an additional 40 members learned critical organizing skills by participating in the contract action team. UESF is one of the only “teacher” unions that has multiple classifications, including nurses, social workers, counselors, psychologists and paraeducators, also known as classified members or education specialists (ESPs). Because of this, building unity and solidarity was a major challenge we overcame in the struggle for “equitable and meaningful” raises for all. After a decade of winning the same percentage in raises across all classifications meant that the gap between the lowest paid worker and the highest paid worker kept increasing. Some of our paraeducators were making less than $20 an hour as they worked with the most vulnerable populations. New teachers were attracted to surrounding Districts because their starting pay was so low in San Francisco. With the new agreement, paraeducator hourly wages are now no less than $30 an hour, one of the highest in the State of California. For certificated staff, the $9,000 pay increase means the salary for new teachers is finally competitive and at the same time, this amounts to the highest single-year percentage increase in the last 15 years.
The achievements in this TA were reflective of the newfound power of our union. For the life of the 2 year contract, certificated members will see an average increase of 19.4%. The minimum increase is 12.8% for higher salary earners and 45.5% for our lower salary earners. The cornerstone of this agreement is the wins for the paraeducators. For these members, the average increase is 39% in hourly wages with the minimum raise being 14% and the maximum raise being an extraordinary 82.3%! These figures are even more remarkable when we understand the history of UESF. It was only until the 2017 contract when classified members received the same percentage in raises. Despite representing 1,500 members out of the 6,400 members, all leadership bodies of UESF agreed it was time to fight for true equity in order to forge deep unity.
A memorable moment that encapsulated how deep the unity and solidarity was among the “big bargaining team” was when the certificated members decided to drop $1,000 in their proposed salary increases in order to preserve “steps” for paraeducators, which benefits the most experienced members in the classified unit. The bargaining table had reached a point of no movement at 3am and without this proposal, it is likely both parties would have walked out. As the sun was rising, UESF had won a $187 million agreement out of the originally proposed package of $190 million; the District had originally offered a $50 million package!
The members are now voting to approve the tentative agreement. As with all closing chapters, we are in a period of hope as well as sobering reflections. It has been a very challenging return to in-person instruction. The pandemic caused major disruptions to the entire public school system. For San Francisco’s Unified School District, this meant the literal collapse in leadership where all high level staff retired or left. Further adding to the disruption, a controversial school board recall took place among a very heated political environment in the City. There was no clear direction being offered by the establishment. Adding more fuel to a raging fire, the District decided to implement a new payroll system. The now infamous “Empower” payroll system meant SFUSD lost all credibility. The terrible mistake cost the District $32 million and impacted almost every single member due to lack of pay, staff leaving and missing benefits.
The union could have stood idly by and simply blamed the institution for the failures. Instead, we sought to build an alternative to show that our union, one rooted in and informed by the rank and file, can inspire an emerging coalition of leaders that demand and fight for the public schools our students, families, educators and city deserve. UESF built up its network of internal communications, forced the District to create working groups and lists to manage the many payroll errors and combined a legal strategy with an organizing one to make it clear that the union’s relentless high expectations are the new standard. Much more can be expected to be achieved in San Francisco thanks to the power built up during this contract campaign.
In the vein of other historical victories by unions like the United Autoworkers Unions, the Teamsters and the Writers Guild of America, educators are rightfully demanding their fair share of an economy that has become unsustainable due to insatiable greed by the capitalist class and intentional starving of public services by politicians who prefer to fund genocide instead of education. As the President of the UAW, Shawn Fain, stated “they underestimated us, they underestimated you. These corporations had no idea what was coming for them and they have no idea idea what’s next.” Now more than ever, it is the duty of all fighters for workers’ rights and those wanting to build workers’ power that can liberate us from the shackles of capitalism, to join the labor movement. For UESF, this historic TA made it abundantly clear, “when we fight, we win!”