Over the past few months, teachers in two California cities have looked to a new labor-community institution to help resolve seemingly intractable problems in negotiations.

Last winter Petaluma educators used the Workers’ Rights Board to convince district administrators to settle key contract questions. In the end, a superintendent responsible for those difficulties left unexpectedly. And in San Francisco, the embattled faculty union at City College joined forces with the unions at San Francisco State and the Art Institute to respond to attacks on faculty during negotiations.

Workers’ Rights Boards are the creations of the Jobs with Justice coalitions, which for many years have been helping to rally community support for unions and workers. The boards are made up of respected community leaders, who hold public meetings to discuss the problems of unions and workers under attack, and pressure administrators or management responsible for the problems.

In Petaluma, negotiations between the Petaluma Federation of Teachers and the Petaluma City Schools over a new contract stalled in July of last year, and an impasse was declared. Teachers hadn’t received a cost-of-living adjustment since 2007, and had taken furlough days and pay cuts during the years of economic crisis. When frustrated teachers tried to attend the negotiations as silent observers, Superintendent Steve Bolman refused to meet.

“To avoid negotiating salary increases, this district continually overestimates spending and underestimates income to the tune of $2 million every year.”

    — Sandra Larsen, Chief Negotiator, Petaluma Federation of Teachers

On December 11, the Workers’ Rights Board convened a hearing to explore the reasons for the district’s intransigence. (See “Community members in action”) Kim Sharp, Petaluma Federation president, told the hearing that district “leadership, which unfortunately also includes the board members, has clearly shown that teachers are less than second-class citizens in Petaluma.”

Sandra Larsen, teacher and the Federation’s lead negotiator, pointed out that while teacher salaries in Petaluma ranked 14th just in Sonoma County, Bolman was the county’s third highest paid superintendent.

To avoid negotiating salary increases, she charged, “This district continually overestimates spending and underestimates income to the tune of $2 million every year. Last year there was even $500,000 budgeted for certificated salaries and not spent.” Larsen said the district rolled over the money into reserves and teachers were told they could not have it.

Union negotiators were given budget after revised budget, and one suddenly listed $3,345,484 in newly discovered expenses. According to a CFT budget analysis, Petaluma City Schools saw its total revenue increase by $3.6 million between 2012-13 and 2013-14, and more between 2013-14 and 2014-15.

Parents and students also testified in support of teachers. Parent Jackie Lebihan, told the board, “I diagnosed it as a toxic work environment.” High school senior Corinna Leonardi said that to keep her from failing “every single teacher pulled me in on his or her own time.”

Following the hearing, the North Bay Workers’ Rights Board issued a report and recommendations: “Petaluma City Schools should prioritize a modest raise for teachers of at least the 4 percent the teachers are requesting — without reducing the other benefits.” It urged the superintendent to allow observers in negotiations, respect elected teacher union leaders, and return to shared decision-making and governance.

In January, Bolman announced he was retiring in June. According to Matt Myres, the mounting pressure “may have had something to do with it.” Then in May, the Petaluma Federation and the school district finally agreed on a contract that included a 5.6 percent base salary increase.

According to Marty Bennett, coordinator of the North Bay chapter of Jobs with Justice, “Teachers became much more visible in the community than ever before.” 

The Workers’ Rights Board convened on September 9 for a “Hearing on the Future of Higher Education in San Francisco.”

According to Tim Killikelly, president of AFT Local 2121 at City College, the district plans to cut class offerings by 15 percent, while contract negotiations have gridlocked. “Cutting classes will hurt students and faculty,” he charged. “Their wage proposal is just not competitive or realistic. How can faculty be expected to live in the Bay Area on what we are being offered?” The district has proposed a 1.1 percent plus COLA raise above 2007 salaries for full-time faculty, and no raise other than COLA for part-timers. Local 2121 members responded with a 93 percent vote to set up a strike hardship fund.

Faculty from San Francisco State University and San Francisco Art Institute also testified about similar issues. Sheila Tully, president of the California Faculty Association union at State, charged that due to a huge increase in part-time temporary appointments,    the average faculty salary at the campus dropped $9,748 between 2004 and 2013.

Gordon Mar, San Francisco coordinator for Jobs with Justice, explained, “The faculty unions at all three colleges are in bargaining campaigns. We’re going to issue a report and videos from the hearing to support those campaigns, as well as related efforts to support equitable higher education.”

Results in San Francisco, like those in Petaluma, may spark a big increase in interest among California teachers and classified workers in supporting Jobs with Justice chapters and setting up more Workers’ Rights Boards. ­

— By David Bacon, CFT Reporter

Community members take action for education

PETALUMA Workers’ Rights Board
Jeanette Ben Farhat
 Political science instructor at Santa Rosa Junior College 
Rev. Raymond Decker Catholic Scholars for Worker Justice 
Lisa Maldonado Executive Director of the North Bay Labor Council 
Matt Myres, Chair Retired teacher and principal 
Rev. Ramón Pons St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church

SAN FRANCISCO Workers’ Rights Board
Rev. Israel Alvaran
, Chair United Methodist Church 
Matt Haney School board member, San Francisco Unified Board of Education 
Celia Herrera Rodriguez Artist, faculty at UCB and California College of the Arts 
Eric Mar County supervisor Myrna Melgar Executive Director of Jamestown Community Center Director 
Cherrie Moraga Playwright, poet, essayist, artist-in-residence at Stanford 
Rev. Richard L. Smith Vicar of St. John’s Episcopal Church

Learn more about Workers’ Rights Boards
>Jobs With Justice
>North Bay Jobs With Justice 
>San Francisco Jobs With Justice