A packed room of seated protesters, wearing red and holding signs that say "More than praise, we need a raise."
Teachers and supporters packed into a School Board meeting Oct. 23. Many plan to call in sick from work at Berkeley High on Monday in protest. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Dozens of Berkeley High teachers and staff will reportedly not show up to work Monday, instead protesting in front of the school and district headquarters during the final scheduled session of union contract negotiations.

The so-called “sickout” — where employees will call in “sick” — follows a similar but smaller action at Berkeley High a week earlier. Both events were planned without permission from union leadership.

“We decided to sickout for our current students and all future students of Berkeley Unified School District, and we are part of a national movement to defend public education and build the schools students deserve,” Monday’s organizers wrote in a message to their BUSD colleagues Thursday. “We have watched meager salary increases be foisted upon us, year after year, while the cost of living outpaces our wages.”

Teachers have been working since the summer without a contract. The union and district cannot come to an agreement over a raise amount. The Berkeley Federation of Teachers is also demanding caps on caseloads for special-education teachers, and says there has been some agreement on that front. There is also tension over how much to rely on possible revenue from a proposed new parcel tax for educator compensation.

When a handful of teachers stayed home this Monday, Berkeley High administrators were caught by surprise and had to fill in for teachers themselves or, in some cases, move multiple classes to the gym at the same time.

This time there is a bit more advance notice, but the impact will likely be much greater. Teachers said they’ve gotten commitments from about 100 participants so far, including the school’s security officers (Berkeleyside has not been able to independently verify that).

“Berkeley High School will be open Monday, with substitutes and administrators stepping in, and classes combined into larger groups as necessary,” said BUSD spokeswoman Trish McDermott in an email.

She said the school will send out a message warning parents about the abnormal day Friday afternoon. There should be no interruption to meal service or afterschool sports and tutoring, she said. District administrators could also have their hands full that day dealing with the PG&E power shutoff, which could leave two elementary schools without power Monday.

Painting of large sunflower on the ground that says "FAIR CONTRACT NOW" in center.
The Berkeley Federation of Teachers painted a removable protest mural outside the School Board meeting entrance this week. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Asked about the district’s reaction to the “sickout” tactic and message, McDermott wrote, “We are making progress at the table with our contract negotiations and are hopeful about reaching an agreement.”

In the message to their colleagues, BHS organizers called Monday a “sad day,” saying they don’t want to leave their classrooms.

But, they wrote, “We believe it is time for the school board and community to hear our cry…We simply cannot wait for yet another contract to go by and be told to wait; for increased state funding, or for new legislation sometime in the future.”

Berkeley Federation of Teachers President Matt Meyer said the union has not endorsed Monday’s unofficial strike — and couldn’t.

“State law imposes certain timelines for when a strike can be declared by the union and currently negotiations have not reached this point,” Meyer said in an email. “This is self-organized by staff at Berkeley High.”

BHS organizers said they believe they’re in a “unique position” to protest, because they teach older students whose families won’t be as inconvenienced by absent educators. They said they don’t expect middle and elementary school colleagues to join them.

Participants plan to “picket” outside Berkeley High from 8:30-8:50 a.m. on Monday, during a regularly scheduled all-staff meeting, then rally at the district headquarters at 2020 Bonar St. from 9:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. On Mondays BHS classes start late, at 10 a.m.

This story was updated after publication with the district’s response. 

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,...