A critical pitch
Teachers show solidarity as possible strike looms
“R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me …” rang a familiar refrain through loudspeakers set up outside of the Chico Holiday Inn Monday (March 9) afternoon. Aretha Franklin’s plea for fair treatment served as a metaphor for the demands of hundreds of educators assembled outside the building where school district officials and teacher union reps met to discuss contract negotiations.
The threat of a strike—which would be the first in the district’s history—has loomed since talks about wage increases, benefits, internal management and other issues between the Chico Unified Teachers Association and the Chico Unified School District went south late last year (see “At an impasse,” Newslines, Feb. 26). A fact-finding hearing held at the hotel Monday prompted the teachers’ show of solidarity.
During the fact-finding process, a panel of three—one member from each side and a neutral person agreed on by each faction—meet to discuss the issues and see if an agreement can be reached. After the panel presents a report, the district can make its final offer, and the union can strike if its members vote to do so.
More than 500 teachers and their supporters met in the parking lot of Kmart on Pillsbury Road after school ended and then marched down Cohasset Road to a grassy piece of land in the Denny’s parking lot, next door to the hotel, for a brief rally and press conference. Many carried signs, with one frequent motto reading, “We’d rather be teaching.”
“Our goal is to get a settlement, not to have to strike,” Joe Asnault, a Chico High English teacher who serves as the union’s vice president, told the assembled teachers from the bed of a pickup truck, “but what the district is doing is arranging for a strike.”
Negotiations were in the works through 2014, before hitting a wall last October. In December, the teachers voted to give union leadership the right to call a strike if negotiations do not work. The union believes the school district is determined to force a strike. During CUSD’s Feb. 25 board meeting, its five-member panel voted to hire an outside labor consultant and approved a dozen resolutions outlining how to respond if teachers walk out.
According to a March 6 press release, the union is further convinced the district wants teachers to strike because advertisements offering substitutes as much as $280 daily (several times the standard $78 paid under normal circumstances) have recently appeared on Craigslist, education employment site Edjoin, and other websites. Paying scab wages would cost the district more than $185,000 per day, the press release says, and Asnault warned the damage would be more than financial.
“The district keeps saying if we walk out there’s going to be some kind of quality education happening, as they’ve stated over and over again in emails and press releases,” Asnault told the crowd. “I don’t see how they can [promise quality education] because you’re not going to be there. They can’t do it, but what they can do is negotiate a fair settlement.
“I’m sad we have to be out here to do this, but the hope is when [the meeting] is done tonight we’re going to have a settlement and we won’t have to do this anymore,” he said.
No agreement was reached Monday night, as the fact-finding hearing turned into a multi-day session. On Tuesday, CUTA President Kevin Moretti said union or district reps couldn’t comment on what progress, if any, has been made by the panel, as all parties are under a gag order until the process ends.
Unless an agreement is reached soon, the threat of a strike remains. At the rally, Asnault said the union will continue to do informational picketing at four local campuses every Thursday, and at the next CUSD board meeting, scheduled for March 25.