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Will UESF fight for a Living Wage?

by Andy Libson & Adrienne Johnstone (andrewlibson [at]
This article summarizes the major issues around UESF's upcoming contract fight and argues that the issues surround the wages and work hours of our poorest members must be central to our fight this year. It also makes the case for the need to prepare for a strike.
Will UESF fight for a Living Wage?

Adrienne Johnstone is a fifth and sixth grade math & science teacher at SF Community School and Executive Board Member for United Educators of San Francisco (UESF). Andy Libson is a high school science teacher at Mission High School and member of UESF. Both are members of the reform caucus Educators for a Democratic Union (EDU).

The contract for United Educators of San Francisco (UESF) expires June 30th, 2014 and unlike previous years, educators should be expecting major gains and gearing up for a fight to make sure we get back all that we have lost over the last several years. The improvement in the California economy, the change in how education is funded (Local Control Formula), two years of massive givebacks on the part of teachers and public sector workers, and Prop. 30 have all combined to create a situation where SFUSD is anticipating an estimated $200 million increase in their budget over the coming years (an almost 50% increase).

We will be told that we cannot “have it all” and living in a capitalist system, with California still being ranked near the bottom of school funding, there is some truth to this. Still, we will be most successful if we set the bar high for our demands and prepare to wage the kind of fight that will really test SFUSD’s willingness to say “No” to our demands. This of course means all of us accepting and preparing ourselves to vote “yes” on a strike when the time comes and being ready to strike either in late May, but more likely in early August 2014.

The other question facing us is priorities. Wage increases, class size reduction, health care benefits, restoring our Early Education program, prep time for elementary school teachers and an overall increase in staffing during instructional hours and after school: all of these issues require being addressed this year.

We believe a priority that our union leadership and members must put at the center of our contract campaign is the wages and work hours of our classified members, mostly child development workers, security and paraprofessionals (classroom aides). This group comprises about 1300 of our 6000 total members (certificated and classified) and represents a section of our own union that is literally, the working poor. Over the last eight years, they have not seen an increase in their wages, most have received a cut in hours and they have been affected disproportionately by layoffs and elimination of whole job categories.

The reform caucus that we are both members of, Educators for a Democratic Union (EDU), has urged UESF members to make the conditions of our classified members a central organizing plank of our contract campaign through our contract position paper and by distributing buttons that demand “A Living Wage for Paras!” It is no exaggeration to say that classified members in San Francisco do not make a living wage. Paraprofessionals hit the top of their earnings after just five years. This means a classroom support para with 20 years of experience is paid $20.62 and their hours are maxed out at six hours a day (30/week). Paraprofessionals will take home around $850 every two weeks. If they’re lucky, only half of their income is chewed up in rent; after essentials of food, transportation, utilities are included you have section of our union which has literally nothing left to save. And let’s not even talk about possibly trying to raise a child on such an income. Additionally, our classified members go without any income at all for at least two months during the year and cannot qualify for unemployment. This means our paraprofessionals’ yearly experience is a scramble for finding extra work both during the school year and over the summer to barely just get by.

We have made this case at the UESF assembly and among members at our school sites, Mission High School and San Francisco Community School. While there is agreement that the conditions of our classified members are abysmal, there is a tendency to dismiss the call for focusing on the paraprofessionals as too narrow and potentially divisive, that an across the board wage increase that affects all our members would be better. Here is just a short list of concerns and questions raised by our union leadership and our fellow members that we hope to address. We’ll take them each individually and in the way they have come up when we have spoken with members we work with, or elsewhere.

Wouldn’t an across the board wage and salary increase be better?

No. For the same reason we oppose a flat tax because it disproportionately hurts the lowest wage earners, a flat wage increase is similarly unfair when you have such dramatic wage disparity among members in the same union. Just as it is only ‘fair’ that the rich must be taxed more, it is conversely only fair that the poorest of our members see the greatest wage increase to try and lift them out of their poverty wages. If teachers expect a 5% wage increase per year (and we do think that is a fair request), then our classified should expect at least a 20 – 25% wage increase.

This demand for a wage increase must also include an increase in work hours for classified members. SFUSD has moved to a ‘full inclusion’ model that attempts to place students with learning disabilities in the least restrictive learning environment, moving away from schools that segregate our students with disabilities from students who have not been identified as having a learning disability. We support this drive to full inclusion, but it will only be successful if done with more resources coming into the schools. Part of that means more paraprofessional support in the classroom to help students who are struggling most to make the transition and make integration successful. Instead, we currently have many paraprofessionals limited to a six hour workday while teachers have a seven hour contractual day.

While it couldn’t be further from the truth, nothing says, “you are unnecessary for our students’ learning” more than having your workday substantially shorter that the school day. Our schools desperately need all our staff present at the same time our students are there. How else can we truly collaborate on how we will work together to support our students?

Isn’t focusing so much on the needs of paraprofessional workers divisive?

No. First off there is a basic union credo we need to remember at this point: “an injury to one is an injury to all!” The situation we face in our union is not an injury to one but an injury to over one thousand of our members and it must be remedied for several reasons.

First, our classified members have historically been the most disrespected and readily dispensed with by SFUSD and we must reverse this trend if UESF is going to become a union that is capable of using its strength to defend all its members. Also, that disrespect towards paraprofessionals often extends into our own union. Talk to any paraprofessional and they will tell you stories about how they were mistreated and disrespected by a fellow teacher who is in the same union. This internal division is readily exploited by our employers, who over time have used divide-and-conquer tactics to pick apart our union. These tactics don’t just get used against paraprofessionals, but also against English, social studies and electives teachers whose jobs are considered more expendable than math or science teachers and face greater job losses when layoffs come. We have also seen SFUSD try to pit the conditions of teachers in low-income ‘zones’ over those teachers in regions outside these zones. All these tactics by SFUSD weaken our union by breaking down solidarity between members. An organizing campaign within UESF that orients toward providing a living wage for paras and makes that case to the entire membership begins to heal the internal divisions that only weaken us as a whole.

Isn’t the issue of wages and hours of paraprofessionals too narrow?

No. The wages and hours of our classified members are outrageous. Fighting for justice for them is commensurate to the importance of the fight for $15 an hour among fast food workers and the OUR Walmart campaign for justice for the lowest paid non-unionized workers. A UESF struggle that exposes this outrage to the public and puts as its central goal a living wage for our classified members should be seen not as divisive, but as a step toward unions waging a fight for lifting ALL our fellow workers out of poverty. It would be an example of how such a solidarity campaign could be waged.

Furthermore, our classified members are overwhelmingly people of color and women. The fight for a living wage in UESF must be connected to how our unions can concretely fight the poisonous effects of sexism and racism in this society that constantly marginalizes and devalues the labor of workers of color and women in order to justify lower wages. For our entire union to wage a determined fight to lift many of our black and brown brothers and sisters out of poverty would be an example to our students, to our community and likely the country, about how workers can and will fight racism and sexism. Conversely, doing nothing only sends the opposite message.

While there will and certainly must be other demands we will want to fight around this year, putting the conditions of paraprofessionals at the center of such a campaign (and posing it the way we suggest above) would galvanize massive support across the Bay Area and likely around the country. It would also help insulate our union from the kinds of attacks that will come if we strike. If we put classified members at the center of our campaign, good luck with that bullshit story about “greedy teachers” who have better wages and benefits than everyone else just fighting for themselves.

You’ve mentioned strike several times, do you really think that will be necessary?

Yes, we do. Given the financial situation of SFUSD and the city, we need to raise our expectations of what we can get for our schools and our members. But SFUSD is not just going to hand this over; they will do all sorts of bookkeeping tricks to hide the extent of their surplus and reserve funds and continue to grow the administrative bureaucracy. Let’s remember, while we were taking about $50 million per year in cuts the last several years, administration grew in both income and size -- at a rate of about 12% per year. These people are complete liars and are actually thieves. We’re not kidding. Thieves! We will not realize any of our demands short of threatening and then going on strike.

It sounds like you want to go on strike?

We do. Sisters and brothers, what is a union even for, but to join the collective power of all workers into a single unit to defend our collective interests? Unions were created really to do one thing…not to bargain, not to file grievances, not to collect dues, have meetings, put out a newspaper, sing songs or wear the same colored shirts. These are all features of a union, but they are all supposed to be in service of one thing: binding our members into a single unit so we can defend our schools and our workplaces by going on strike. That is the lesson of Chicago and that is the lesson any history teacher would deliver when talking about unions.

Many people have asked us, “Why is our union so weak? Why are members so disaffected? Why don’t so many people have any real sense of being in a union?” There are several factors, but the one we’ll highlight the most is this: the last time our union actually did what it was designed to do (go on strike) was 1979. Think about it. If you had a bus and the last time everyone piled in and drove it was 1979, that bus would be sitting up on blocks in the backyard, rusted, headlights missing, windows broken and tires flat, looking pretty sad. Instead of everyone getting in the bus and going somewhere together, our members have been finding largely individual solutions to their problems (cutting deals with administrators, hiding in their classroom, or mostly just making the necessary changes asked of them but growing in frustration and alienation from our profession). This is the sad story of our experience in our union that has been unfolding for decades. Many decades. We need to act this contract round if we are to have hopes for building real solidarity in our union.

It sounds like you have a larger agenda.

Yes, we do. We are socialists and we actually believe working people can change the entire world if they exercise their collective might. The idea of people changing the world as part of collective working class project is extremely foreign to people and seems like an idea whose time has come and gone. It even seems more foreign when people see the working class that they are part of as completely incapable of collective action that makes sweeping change. Class struggle isn’t just the best way to get what we want in the here and now, it is the only way for us to get a sense of what working people as a class are actually capable of. In UESF, we have kept both that experience and that vision locked away in a box for over 30 years. It’s time to change that.

Are you a socialist or communist?

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