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On the picket line

October 21, 2005 | Page 11

Colchester, Vt., teachers
General Motors

San Francisco Unified School District
By Adrienne Johnstone, United Educators San Francisco

SAN FRANCISCO--The struggle for a fair contract for school workers in the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) is heating up as the district's two largest unions prepare for a possible strike.

At a joint rally October 11, held by SEIU Local 790 and United Educators San Francisco (UESF), Local 790 School Chapter president Karen Bishop said, "We are going on strike--there's no doubt about that." Meanwhile, UESF President Dennis Kelly promised reporters that San Francisco would see a strike if a just contract settlement isn't reached soon.

Workers in all four of the school district's unions are working with expired contracts. The 1,200 members of Local 790 voted in late September to authorize a strike after the district and union reached impasse at the bargaining table.

SFUSD is seeking to take away dependent health care benefits from the lowest-paid workers in the schools--the janitors, cafeteria workers and office staff that make up Local 790. After 20 years on the job, a district janitor makes only $20 an hour. SFUSD wants to cut workers' health care for dependents in exchange for a 4 percent raise--effectively a pay cut--and eliminate dependent health care entirely in another two years.

Last week's rally marked the first public show of solidarity between Local 790 and UESF, which represents the district's teachers, classroom aides, counselors and substitutes. UESF members have been without a contract for two years, and many were eager to join SEIU members in picketing the school board meeting. Many teachers say they will honor an SEIU picket line when the union strikes--and a joint strike of all school workers is possible.

While UESF members haven't had a raise in almost four years, the SFUSD superintendent, Arlene Ackerman, makes $250,000 a year, receives a $2,000-per-month housing allowance, and will get a $375,000 severance package in June. What's more, the state government has sent the district enough funds to cover a nearly 15 percent cost-of-living (COLA) increase for employees--none of which has been passed on to workers.

SFUSD has offered no raise at all to UESF in the current negotiations and refuses to create parity in pay for the Child Development Center workers, whose wage scale has been frozen since 1986.

Anger among district workers is high. Members of UESF who formed a rank-and-file contract organizing team will be visiting schools over the next several weeks to help prepare to turn that anger into action. Another SEIU/UESF picket of the next school board meeting is planned, and leaders of both unions meet regularly before negotiating sessions to talk strategy and solidarity.

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Colchester, Vt., teachers
By Kristin Sweeney

COLCHESTER, Vt.--Members of the Colchester Education Association (CEA), affiliated with the Vermont National Education Association, walked off the job October 10.

Out of 33 similar districts in the state, Colchester rates second-to-lowest in its per-student spending, and starting wages for Colchester teachers are the lowest in the county. High school teacher Julie Conrad said that she may need to leave for a better-paying district in order to provide for her 2-year-old son's future college education. "I feel completely abandoned by the school board," she said.

The school board has proposed a paltry 2.5 percent raise, cutting sick leave and long-term disability by 50 percent, and drastically raising health care costs. Negotiations collapsed after the school board refused a compromise of a raise between 4.5 and 4.8 percent, and on October 4, teachers voted 159-6 to strike after working without a contract since the end of August.

Wearing signs that said, "Settle now!" and "No teacher left behind," more than 200 teachers and CEA supporters picketed for a fair contract on the day of the vote. Although by union rules students are not allowed to picket, some brought their teachers pizza, cookies and brownies while they marched. "This strike sets a good example for students to stand up for what you believe in," said 17-year-old Arthur Reid.

A group of students is now considering a community petition in support of teachers, setting up free child care to ease the burden on parents and writing letters of solidarity to local newspapers. At a recent school board meeting, more than 150 teachers, students and community members voiced their support for the teachers.

School board chair Renn Niquette has said, "We need a budget that's affordable for the whole community." But as signs on the picket line ask, if the board is so concerned with saving money, "Why have they spent $34,000 of taxpayer money hiring a lawyer for the conflict?"

Unfortunately, many community members do not support the strike and view it as an isolated battle with teachers pitted against taxpayers and needy students. To rally support, the CEA needs to have a public campaign explaining the teachers' side of the story, including letters to the editor and a solidarity panel.

Seventeen-year-old Kristène Kaim put it well when she explained why students need to support teachers: "Teachers are the foundation of our success. Without them, we are nothing."

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General Motors
By Lee Sustar

THE UNITED Auto Workers (UAW) agreed October 16 to force retirees to pay health insurance premiums for the first time and make higher co-payments as part of a deal to allow General Motors to slash costs by $3 billion over several years.

The agreement--which came after months of denials by union officials that they would consider making such a deal--will force retirees to pay for premiums as well as higher charges for doctors' visits and prescription drugs. While details weren't available as Socialist Worker went to press, retirees can expect to pay thousands of dollars a year in additional costs.

Retiree medical benefits have long been a cornerstone of UAW contracts at the Big Three automakers. In recent years, workers have taken lower wage increases in order to preserve them. GM officials estimate that the company has lost nearly $4 billion this year, and management upped the pressure on the union to reopen the contract signed in 2003 before it expires in 2007.

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