Some Berkeley teachers, pictured here at a September rally, called out sick Monday to put pressure on the district during union negotiations. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

As thousands of teachers took to picket lines in Chicago, a number of Berkeley educators waged their own unofficial strike Monday.

The “wildcat strike” — meaning it wasn’t authorized by the Berkeley Federation of Teachers union — saw several Berkeley High teachers taking the day off to pressure the district into meeting their demands. Teachers have been working on an expired contract since the summer, and there are still large gaps between their asks and BUSD’s offers, according to the union.

BFT President Matt Meyer emphasized that the wildcat strike was “self-organized.”

A couple days earlier, teachers and staff throughout Berkeley held “walk-ins” before school started Friday, chanting and waving signs about higher wages and more support for special education.

It was there, at Berkeley High’s walk-in, that history teacher Alice Bynum first heard that some of her colleagues were planning to “sick out” Monday.

“It was good old-fashioned organizing. It happened through the whisper network,” Bynum said.

Math teacher Dan Plonsey said he decided to stay home because he’s watched compensation lag further and further behind the cost of living, while workers’ healthcare costs rise. He said he’s been unsatisfied with BFT’s agreements with the district in the past.

“We need to demonstrate to both the district and the union that there are teachers who’d be willing to go on strike — and we’re willing to take personal risks,” Plonsey said.

According to the district, 26 teachers called out Monday, compared to a range of 10 to 25 on each of the days the previous week.

“One difference yesterday was that the absences were called in later,” said Berkeley Unified spokeswoman Trish McDermott in an email Tuesday. “This meant there was less time to bring in subs.”

She said the school had to scramble to accommodate the surprise absences.

“Administrators had to cancel their planned workdays to step in and teach some classes,” she said.

During multiple points on Monday, a few classes were relocated together to the gym because they were missing teachers. Photo: Nancy Rubin

Bynum, who did end up going to work, said eight of the 28 ninth grade teachers stayed home. A student who spoke with Berkeleyside said she took an informal poll of a 20-person classroom at the end of the day Monday and six of those students had had at least one teacher absent.

Berkeley High Principal Erin Schweng said she was one of the administrators who stepped up to cover classes. “When necessary (a few different periods throughout the day) we put a few classes together in one of our gyms so multiple administrators could be present to supervise and take attendance,” she said in an email.

Plonsey said he understands the impact of leaving students on their own, but said he believes it’s “worth taking a day or two out of the school year to demonstrate to students that we’re going to walk the talk.”

“A lot of us fall into that habit of telling students our generation failed them,” he said. By taking a day off, “maybe we’re not going to be quite as strong on factoring quadratics — but being an informed citizen who feels the sense of their power is much more important in the long run than almost anything I could teach.”

Meyer said it was “understandable” that some teachers chose to call out.

“Our members are just reacting to the facts on the ground. They really want to see a serious proposal from the district,” Meyer said. “But I do think we’re still in negotiations and we’ll hopefully get to an agreement.”

The union has focused on two overarching demands — one for higher wages and one for smaller caseloads for special education teachers. According to School Services of California, BUSD compensation for certificated staff was $8,000 below average among comparable districts in 2017-18. Berkeley teachers can make roughly between $44,000 and $91,000, not including health benefits.

Teachers say the low rate makes it harder for Berkeley to hire and keep strong employees, and makes it challenging for current teachers to live comfortably — or at all — in the exorbitant Bay Area. Berkeley educators have shared stories of living with their parents into their thirties, waiting to start families they can’t afford to raise, and commuting from several cities away. Special education teachers say they’re especially overworked and can’t adequately serve the students who need the most attention. There were several vacancies in that department at the start of the year.

According  to BFT’s latest report-backs from negotiations, the district has newly agreed to instate special-ed caseload caps. BUSD’s latest compensation offer would also give teachers a 2.25% raise, plus a 3% bonus, this year, an increase of up to 7% in 2020-21 entirely contingent on the passage of a new tax measure, and no raise in 2021-22. (When asked for confirmation, the district said it does not comment on negotiations.) The union is conversely asking for guaranteed raises of 4% this year and 5% next year, as well as revenue from the potential tax. Some teachers have criticized the district for banking on the uncertain source.

a person dressed in red has their back to the camera. they're wearing an instrument case that has a sign on it: "this instrument is ready to strike"
BHS Math teacher Masha Albrecht sent a musical message at a rally in September. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

The current proposal before the board is for a 8-12 year, $10 million annual property tax, at a rate of about 12 cents per square foot. Voters will also be asked to renew the district’s maintenance tax and facilities bond next year.

District executives and officials have consistently said they agree Berkeley teachers should be paid more. But they say decades of underfunding of public education have left BUSD unequipped to give educators the raises they deserve without an alternative source like the proposed tax.

“As we engage in collective bargaining with our teachers, we are very aware that funding for education in Berkeley is largely dependent on revenue from the state,” said McDermott in an email last week. “We have now entered into a period in which these allocations don’t keep pace with our expenses, and we’re required to find a careful balance between many important priorities, including raises for all our employees.”

Monday, the day of the wildcat strike, Superintendent Brent Stephens wrote a post on the district website describing how state policy and economic fluctuation have plunged BUSD and neighboring districts into what he calls a “silent recession.” Over the past two years, the district has slashed almost $4 million from it budget, trying to contain most of the cuts to the administrative level, not classrooms.

“Even with these cuts, without significant funding changes, BUSD is likely to move to unsustainable deficit spending in a matter of only a few years,” Stephens wrote.

As has become customary, teachers plan to show up en masse at Wednesday’s School Board meeting. The final scheduled negotiation session is Monday, Oct. 28. What happens next is wrapped up in the timeline for the ballot measure.

If no agreement is reached, an authorized strike is not an immediate possibility, Meyer said, in part because there’s a state-mandated timeline that includes mediation and other steps before a strike can be called.

But if the nothing much changes next week, Bynum said she expects more of her colleagues to take matters into their own hands.

“For me personally, if things are not going well, I’m not going to be in the classroom,” she said. “It’s more important to be advocating for my students in every way I can.”

This article was updated with information provided by BUSD after publication. 

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Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...