By Hannah Brandt
On Thursday, September 29, just days after the October edition of Community Alliance was published, I attended the public bargaining meeting for the Fresno Teachers Association. According to the organizers of the event, around 200 people, mostly educators and support staff, showed up to make their voices heard. The multi-purpose room of the Westside Church of God was packed to the gills. My mother is a high school teacher and we ended up sitting with a group of school nurses. A sense of frustration rippled from table to table that had clearly built up over months if not years. The meeting came to a halt with a chorus of boos directed at Fresno Unified school district officials when they refused to negotiate at the meeting.
For the first time, the Fresno Teachers Association (FTA) asked community members, including parents, to participate in collective bargaining and allowed the media to observe. In past years, negotiations have been behind closed doors, but FTA president, Tish Rice, and executive director, Louis Jamerson, stressed the fact that the teachers’ union is striving for openness in these negotiations. When Peter Schaffert, the lawyer for the district, claimed that by doing so the union was “basically breaking the law,” Mo Kashmiri, associate director for FTA, a lawyer and former labor representative for the California Nurses Association, asked why the district is afraid of transparency. While this strategy is new for educators in the City of Fresno, such bargaining by teachers’ unions is done elsewhere in California.
Fresno Unified claims that their contract with FTA states that those individuals participating in the negotiation must be identified ahead of time. In the past, they have never worked with more than a dozen people. They flatly refused to negotiate except if a handful of people agreed to meet privately in another room. Executive director Jamerson had the floor at the time and asked the crowd whether they would accept the district’s terms. The response was a resounding no.
The argument FTA made is that everyone in the room was a “person with special knowledge relevant to the negotiations” and as such, was eligible to contribute. Schaffert denounced it as “town-hall bargaining.” FTA’s legal advisers say there is no limit on the number of people for such negotiations established in the agreement. FUSD also balked at the scope of the contract demands, which included decreasing class sizes, putting a school nurse and social worker or psychiatrist at every school location, as well as a campus safety advisor at each campus.
After returning from giving the district officials the educators’ response, Jamerson said. “I think you scared them a little. If they walk out today, that’s okay. That means you all won tonight. They should know we’re committed to this. There’s too much at stake.” Getting the group fired up, he said that it is important that everyone come back for the next meeting and bring more people with them. He said he wants to see a room twice as big packed the same way. FTA leadership and most teachers in the room said they would not back down without a fight.
The nurses we talked to said there are several schools in Fresno Unified where a nurse is only assigned to be on site once a week. My mother has had class loads so large she has had to put desks outside the door of her small classroom because there is not an inch of space left for students. The consensus at our table, and in the room, was simple: “Our kids deserve better.”
Hannah Brandt is the editor of Community Alliance newspaper. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @HannahBP2. Follow the paper on Facebook at Community Alliance Newspaper and on Twitter and Instagram @fresnoalliance.