The struggle ahead for Burlington teachers

November 28, 2016

Nolan Rampy reports on the outcome in a struggle for a new teachers' union contract.

THE BURLINGTON Education Association (BEA) and the Burlington School Board reached a settlement on a new contract on October 19, narrowly averting a strike set to begin the following day.

The union made two important gains. First, the union won a substantial increase in the pool of funding available to teachers pursuing ongoing education--from $80,000 to $170,000. Second, the union preserved teachers' ability to cash out a percentage of their sick leave on retirement.

Unfortunately, most of the other problematic elements of the working conditions imposed unilaterally by the district on its 400 teachers in early October have now been enshrined in the current contract.

The concessions include a freeze to the step increases for salaries, a 15 to 17 percent increase in employee health care costs, and a meager 2.75 percent increase to teachers' base pay. In addition, Superintendent Yaw Obeng has greater discretion to issue pay raises based on education and years of experience, and there is language in the contract that explicitly prohibits teachers from appealing his decisions.

Teachers and community members rally for a fair contract in Burlington, Vermont
Teachers and community members rally for a fair contract in Burlington, Vermont

Despite the concessions, signing a contract was, in and of itself, important. The board tried to bypass the union altogether when it voted to impose working conditions rather than continue negotiating. Community backlash, along with the threat of a strike, forced the board back to the negotiating table.

The union made the right to collective bargaining a central issue in its campaign. The week before the two sides were scheduled to meet, the union took a near-unanimous vote to authorize a strike. Of the 330 teachers who attended the meeting, 96 percent voted in favor of the strike authorization.

The rapid transition of BEA teachers into a fighting posture wasn't a spontaneous or inevitable response to the board's actions. Until recently, the BEA lacked a clear strategy for developing the strength of the union, and despite several years of concessionary contracts, the union made no attempt to mobilize teachers.

Things shifted earlier this year when a slate of young teachers oriented on building from the bottom up won leadership positions within the union.

After winning the election, they began reaching out to teachers across the district and assembling a network of organizers to facilitate transparency and democratic participation in the union. They regularly held informal informational meetings at schools across the district to update teachers and answer questions.

In the end, the BEA lost more than they won. But the mobilization of teachers across the district for pickets and organizing work, not to mention the near-unanimous strike vote with a large majority of the membership voting, would have been unthinkable a year ago. "The best thing to come out of this is our union is now organized," said one Burlington teacher after the new contract had been secured.

THE TEACHERS' fight goes beyond a battle with the members of the school board, who are acting as willing accomplices to Democrats and Republicans at the state and local level who are pushing an agenda of austerity.

According to Jack Hoffman of the Public Assets Institute, the government has been looking for ways "to bring Vermont voters to heel on the matter of school spending."

In an effort to force voters to self-impose austerity budgets, the state legislature passed an education reform bill last year that penalizes towns for exceeding state-mandated growth rates in spending per student. If districts approve budgets that exceed these limits, "it will mean they no longer have equal access to education funds," explained Hoffman. "Their tax rates will be higher than other towns that don't trigger the penalties but have exactly the same education spending per pupil."

During the contract fight, Miro Wienberger, Burlington's Democratic mayor, was apparently too busy with his multimillion-dollar economic development projects to spend a lot of time worrying about students and teachers.

He attempted to stay neutral, calling on both sides to return to the negotiating table with "a spirit of goodwill." His statement had the appearance of neutrality while pressuring teachers to make concessions by legitimizing the school board's position.

The attacks, spearheaded by Vermont's Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin, will only get worse under Phil Scott, the newly elected Republican governor. The governor-elect has already announced that education and health care spending will be first on the chopping block. In a sign of things to come, Scott cited a report that advocates cutting more than $160 million in education spending across the state to support his plan.

BEA's rejuvenated organizing efforts are a welcome development, especially in the face of what will undoubtedly be multiple years of attempts by the school board to reduce costs, in part by winning concessions from the union.

The teachers have learned important lessons from this fight, and they're already preparing for the next round of negotiations. Teachers now understand that there's nothing stopping the board from doing the same thing all over again.

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