New Haven, California teacher strike enters second week

By Jonathan Burleigh
28 May 2019

Striking teachers in the New Haven Unified School District, 30 miles south of Oakland, California, returned to their pickets for the sixth day Tuesday. Backroom negotiations between district officials and the New Haven Teachers Association (NHTA) failed to reach any tentative contract for teachers to vote upon. Roughly 600 teachers are on strike in the district, which covers Union City and South Hayward, California, and serves roughly 12,000 students.

Over the weekend, representatives from the NHTA and its parent organization, the California Teachers Association (CTA), met with district officials in what they claimed were “marathon” negotiating sessions that lasted for over 11 hours each on Friday and Sunday.

According to union and district officials the only unresolved issue is teacher pay. After initially demanding a 20 percent pay raise over two years, a $1,500 retention stipend, and several other items, the NHTA quickly backpedaled to a mere 10 percent salary increase over the two school years from 2018-20. The union is raising no demands to deal with the district’s large class sizes, which are set to balloon for elementary school teachers from 25 to 30, or poor staffing ratios. Further, in previous contract negotiations the union allowed the district to shift 100 percent of medical benefit costs onto teachers, whose medical plans now run as high as $24,000 per year, and the NHTA has made no effort to shift these costs back onto the district.

In response to the union’s capitulation on their initial demands, the district is offering an insulting one-time three percent bonus, a one percent pay raise for the 2019-20 school year, and an extra 0.5 percent for each additional $1 million received in state funding, capped at one percent. On Sunday night, the district sent an email to teachers threatening that any salary increase will be based on cutting $7.8 million from the budget. The district has slated 25 classified (support staff) positions for elimination, the layoff of an unspecified number of teaching positions, and the closure of a school.

Significantly, in contrast to every other recent teacher strike, the New Haven strike is having no financial impact upon the school district whatsoever. Every school district receives funding based on student attendance, but near the end of the school year they can simply report their average daily attendance for that year. New Haven officials deliberately stalled the negotiations process until after this date, so they are now falsely reporting normal attendance figures, despite an overall attendance rate of less than 12 percent during the strike. NHTA officials likely knew that the district would use this tactic, yet they did nothing to fight it or mobilize their membership prior to the cutoff date, and teachers now face intransigent district officials with nothing on the line.

Every day, New Haven teachers are losing roughly 0.55 percent of their annual salary, and they are receiving no strike pay from the NHTA, the CTA, or their parent union, the National Education Association (NEA). Instead, the unions are merely offering teachers interest-free, $100-per-day loans that must be repaid within a year. New Haven teachers have already been forced to take 24 furlough days over the past three years, an effective 13 percent pay cut.

Given this situation, it is likely that the district will continue stonewalling, knowing full well that teachers cannot afford to stay on strike without pay until the end of the school year, June 13.

In a video posted to the NHTA Facebook page after district officials left the building Sunday night, NHTA President Joe Ku’e Angeles said, “Our hope is that something could change, but I’ll be honest with you, based on the conversation today that is not likely. The conversation has not moved from the position they were in when they came in on Friday.”

Angeles continued, “I hate to say this, because it’s not our way to do this, but we’re probably going to be back on strike next week. And I say that with all derision, because that’s not what we want to do.” Angeles then postured as militant, calling upon parents and the community to demand a “recall” of the school board and other elected officials.

In another press conference Thursday, Angeles told teachers to put their faith in the Democrats. In a clear signal that he is planning to capitulate, Angeles said, “We will be contacting our elected official Tony Thurmond to help sort out this conversation that’s happening here now and in Oakland earlier.”

During the seven day Oakland teachers strike, the Oakland Education Association (OEA) praised Thurmond as the “adult in the room” and hid from their membership that Thurmond was demanding behind closed doors that the strike be called off. After Thurmond “helped negotiations,” the OEA announced a tentative agreement a few days later accepting over $22 million in budget cuts, school closures and a pay raise below inflation.

New Haven teachers must reject the entire framework put forward by the unions, which accepts the lie that there “is no money” for public education and that budget cuts and school closures are necessary. The union tells teachers to trust the Democratic Party that has controlled California politics for decades and overseen the unending assault on public education in the state. California is home to 144 billionaires, the majority of whom live in the Bay Area. While schools are starved of funds and teachers cannot afford rent and healthcare, the vast wealth of society is locked away in the private fortunes of the obscenely wealthy, and hundreds of billions of dollars are squandered on war around the globe and savage attacks on immigrants in the United States.

In order to break free from their district-by-district isolation and fight all budget cuts and closures, teachers must form independent rank-and-file strike committees to forge links with teachers across the state and the entire country.

Whatever deal is ultimately reached between the NHTA and the district, teachers should insist on being given adequate time—at least 48 hours—to review and discuss the contract before voting on it. In order to be able to hold the picket lines and expand the struggle beyond the New Haven School District, teachers should demand weekly strike pay from the unions. The dues which they have paid over the course of years have gone not to a strike fund, but almost entirely into the paychecks of the top level union bureaucrats in the CTA and NEA, with over a dozen receiving salaries of over $300,000 a year, and into the campaign coffers of the Democratic Party.

The fight to defend public education is a political struggle. A genuine solution to the crisis of education and the catastrophic underfunding of schools will require a massive redistribution of wealth.

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