The band room grew more and more packed until it was standing room-only. Eighty Berkeley High School educators filled the risers for a secret meeting on a tight time frame during lunch break. The meeting began with a straw poll: Who would be willing to strike for compensation and special education Oct. 28, the last day of contract negotiations? Sixty-nine people raised their hands. By the end of the 40-minute discussion, it was decided: A survey would be sent out over the private communication channel developed for union members at the site. If more than half were in favor, we would strike.
Berkeley educators are not alone in their discontent, as public education in the United States is chronically underfunded. Educators are increasingly tackling this national crisis with the tools of labor organizing, including strikes. The current wave started Feb. 22, 2018 when educators in West Virginia took a stand for increased compensation with a wildcat strike (“wildcat” actions are illegal and can’t be authorized by union leadership; instead, the membership leads by revolt). By the end of 2018, just under 400,000 educators had followed West Virginia’s lead with strikes of their own, resulting in varying outcomes for contracts, as well as a consistent outcome of mobilizing other educators and allies to rise up. Radical action comes from strong beliefs. We strike for our students, whose futures depend on the promise of free, rigorous schooling. We strike for the American Dream of a diverse citizenry empowered to lead lives of self-determination. We strike for equity and the rights of the oppressed.
By Friday, the Berkeley High strike had reached a quorum. The principal was informed, and the plan for a day of minimal staff and students (first developed in May for the Public Education Statewide Day of Action when about 500 Berkeley Unified School District educators traveled to Sacramento) was activated. This was going to be big.
Shortly after West Virginia went on strike, the Berkeley Federation of Teachers started putting together a plan to negotiate a substantial raise in compensation. Speaker trainings ensued, and soon every school board meeting included multiple educators speaking out on the unsustainability of living and working in Berkeley.
We started hearing one another’s stories of working multiple jobs to pay the bills, tolerating unstable or unlivable housing arrangements and feeling overwhelmed by the tension between best serving our students and caring for our own families. Berkeley educators love our students, and we love our jobs, but we can’t afford to live like this.
Many Berkeley residents know we already pay to support students through a parcel tax called the Berkeley Schools Excellence Program, or BSEP. I appreciate the resources for my students that BSEP provides: It’s why so many of us want to teach here, as student support beyond the classroom is essential. At the same time, I see master teachers leave every year for neighboring districts with more competitive pay. They would rather teach in Berkeley, but we don’t pay them enough to stay. Every year, it gets harder and harder to attract applicants to Berkeley, once they see how our compensation lags behind districts in the same county. Since the desirability of Berkeley housing stems in large part from the quality of our public education, it’s ironic that our housing costs could soon undermine that very same education.
On the day of the strike, red attire dominated, as #RedForEd is the hashtag for the movement of educator strikes. A screen print station churned out posters and T-shirts. Signs as individual as their bearers proclaimed, “Fair Contract Now!” and “I’d Rather Be Teaching,” as well as “More than Praise, We Need a Raise,” “Educators Have Big Hearts and Empty Wallets,” and “No Accident that a Female-Dominated Field Has to Beg for a Raise!” Berkeley High educators comprised the majority of the crowd — as anticipated for a strike executed in three school days — but allies from other unions, friends, parents and, most meaningfully, several students drifted among us.
We had time to pose for one group photo before we began the mile-long march to the school district office. Our union band played the accompaniment to chants of “We teach, we care/ School board, be fair!” When we arrived, the shades to the negotiating room were drawn, so we focused on making big noise on the sidewalk. Eventually, whispers and movement urged the parade inside the halls where a dancing, drumming rally brought our message right to the locked door.
Inside, our union negotiators seized the moment, explaining that without a strong tentative agreement, they would not act to stop further radical action on the part of their members. Finally, we had our school district’s attention.
When the dust settled two days later, the tentative agreement drafted that Monday contained many profound gains. Special education made historic progress by establishing assessment and caseload limits. Regarding compensation, all school district employees can expect a 12% raise over two years. Of course, we still need the community to get out and vote in March for a parcel tax covering 7 of that 12%. And, the California Schools and Local Communities Funding Act looms on the November 2020 horizon, ready to get corporations to pay their fair share of real estate taxes, unleashing funding from the state for our next contract.
I don’t know whether I will be able to stay in Berkeley. Like many of my students, I come from a working-class family, first to graduate from college, still supporting my mom and brother, and I’m seemingly never done paying off my student loans. My partner teaches high school math in Oakland. We want kids, soon, and a home without roommates to raise them in. I’m hanging on to my residency in Berkeley by my fingernails, half a block north of the Berkeley-Oakland border. I believe in voting where you live, living where you work, working where you vote. I’m still hoping Berkeley can be my forever home.
It was politically empowering to organize with my colleagues to make our district work for us. The strength we gained mobilizing for this contract campaign is a permanent win. I see it as part of a broader labor movement for the 21st century, public servants coming together to fight for the public good.
Teachers are champions of social justice. We fight every day inside our classrooms; on Oct 28, we showed that we will bring that fight to the streets. We need our city, state and country to back us by truly investing in the best public education possible.
Fully fund the system we have, and it can actually work. It is the least that our children deserve.
Alice Bynum is a social sciences teacher at Berkeley High School.