Berkeley High School educators engage in ‘wildcat’ action sick-out strike

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Berkeley High School, or BHS, educators engaged in a “sick-out” strike Monday during another day of negotiations.

About 180 educators wearing red and holding signs picketed outside BHS before marching to school district offices. Members of the Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, and the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, or BFT, met again for an all-day contract negotiation session — while the group of educators rallied outside the BUSD office where the negotiations were occurring.

“Students in Berkeley Unified School District are in trouble,” BHS social sciences teacher Alice Bynum said in her closing speech during the rally. “Our teaching force is destabilizing, as master educators leave for neighboring districts where pay is higher, and as new teachers weigh taking a massive pay cut just to work here and pay more for healthcare out-of-pocket.”

More than 100 BHS teachers had submitted absences Oct. 26 prior to the sick-out. Students, parents and staff were sent an email about the sick-out from BHS Principal Erin Schweng and BUSD Superintendent Brent Stephens.

BUSD Vice President Ty Alper declined to comment. Other BUSD board members and BUSD spokesperson Trish McDermott could not be reached for comment as of press time.

The school and district expected that a large number of educators and staff would be absent for a one day sick-out, according to the email. The email added that while the high school would remain open, it would not be considered a normal school day.

“We believe this action has been planned to show support for the Berkeley Federation of Teachers’ position regarding contract negotiations with the District,” the email continued. “We are making progress at the table in our contract negotiations with the Berkeley Federation of Teachers and are hopeful about reaching an agreement.”

According to Masha Albrecht, a BHS math teacher, the sick-out was quickly planned and “spontaneous” and is considered a “wildcat” strike action. Albrecht participated in last week’s sick-out as well, which consisted of a smaller group — and said this inspired people to participate in the significantly larger sick-out.

“A wildcat action is by definition an act of frustration,” Albrecht said. “Things are not moving forward at the level that the people that are doing the work — which is us — want them to.”

There are many issues related to financial need and filling in positions which still need to be resolved in the district, according to Bynum and Albrecht.

Bynum said in her speech that despite Berkeley’s reputation for “great education,” BHS has struggled to fill positions — especially in special education — and that this has affected its student population.

“We have a tentative agreement but we’re not going to hear about the results until (Wednesday),” said BFT member Josh Austin. “The sick-out yesterday and the rally and the march … was a combined action independently of the union leadership structure.”

Thao Nguyen is a schools and communites reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @tnguyen_dc.