Two union campaigns strengthen the bonds of community

In February, Berkeley teachers posted 1,000 “Black Lives Matter” signs in classrooms, hallways, administrative offices and on school grounds to highlight recent court decisions on the police shootings of young black men. They are also distributing “Black Lives Matter” lesson plans and resources to teachers in every grade level at the nearly 20 district sites.

“With everything going on around Ferguson and the non-indictment in Staten Island of the officer who killed Eric Garner, we wanted to do something,” says John Becker, Berkeley High English teacher and vice president of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers.

“A lot of the disproportionality issues that arise in our justice and police systems arise in our schools, too, like suspension and dropout rates,” explains Becker. “It’s too easy to look at educational outcomes and conclude that black and brown lives are less important. Teachers want to assure students in a district of mostly students of color, that their lives matter too.”

Elementary school teacher Maggie Knutson, a long-time social justice activist, site representative, and local union organizer, compiled the resources. High school visual arts teacher Miriam Stahl, a screen printer and also a union site representative, created the poster.

“The response has been great. Students, teachers, and administrators are asking for more,” Becker says. “Teachers report that the signs help their students feel like they are in a safe place.” The teachers’ local is printing a second batch of signs and the classified local is getting involved, too.

“It’s too easy to look at educational outcomes and conclude that black and brown lives are less important. Teachers want to assure students in a district of mostly students of color, that their lives matter too.”

John Becker, Vice President, Berkeley Federation of Teachers

Meanwhile, in the third annual “Teachers Across Berkeley” campaign, Berkeley members are visiting local businesses and asking them to post window signs to show support for teachers in the union’s 2015 contract negotiations. 

According to local union organizer Dana Blanchard, a teacher at LeConte Elementary, the project builds lasting connections by keeping the community informed about the union’s contract campaigns and its quality education agenda. The campaign has helped win a parcel tax to maintain some of the smallest class sizes in the Bay Area as well as fund libraries, art, parent outreach programs, and expanded course offerings. 

“As a union, we organize around things beyond our contract, the kinds of things kids deserve,” Blanchard said about the organizing made possible by a grant from the CFT Strategic Campaign Initiative. “It’s about building partnerships.”

When Blanchard canvassed the community, everyone she asked posted a window sign. “Some businesses keep signs up from all three years of the project,” she said. “Especially when there are a lot of ‘bad teacher’ narratives out there, the community sends a positive message to the school board and the district.”

This year’s artistic community sign was designed by King Middle School teacher Julie Searle. It features a quilt motif and communicates that Berkeley and its teachers are “United For Our Children.” 

“As we enter contract negotiations, it’s reassuring to know that most people support their local teachers,” Blanchard concluded. “With such a visual display of support, we feel more confident in our bargaining.” 

— By Mindy Pines, CFT Reporter