Sweetwater teachers held demonstrations at the October and November school-board meetings.
For over a month, many teachers have been “working-to-rule” (performing no unpaid jobs) and picketing before and after school. Outside the November 18 board meeting, a large crowd of teachers and counselors chanted, “I don’t want to strike, but I will.”
So, is a strike imminent?
“Our first option would be to go back to the table,” Sweetwater Education Association president Roberto Rodriguez said in a November 24 interview. “If we don’t hear back from the district on our last offer, we will proceed to impasse.”
If the district or the union cannot reach agreement, then either side can declare impasse. The Public Employees Relations Board (PERB) would then assign a mediator and talks would continue as long as they are productive.
“After mediation comes fact-finding,” Rodriguez said. Then the district can decide which, if any, of the fact-finding results to implement — then the SEA members vote to strike or accept.
Sweetwater teachers have a history of activism. In 2009, over the issue of class size, teachers, parents, students, and central labor-council members swelled the ranks of a picket that stretched around one city block. According to a U-T article from that time, following the action, marathon negotiations resulted in an agreement.
The issues this time, according to teachers at the November 18 board meeting, are health benefits, class size, and trust in bargaining.
During the meeting’s public comment portion, most of the teachers and counselors were not allowed inside because there wasn’t enough seating. The association and members of the public appealed weeks in advance to board president Jim Cartmill to move the meeting to a larger venue, but he did not.
A lottery system was used to bring a few teachers, counselors, and parent and student supporters inside to speak. Health-care benefits was an emotional topic. Some bargaining-unit members cried when they addressed the board because they could no longer carry their children on their plans.
Teachers with families told the board they will now pay $500 a month or more out-of- pocket.
Rodriguez says the association has filed an Unfair Labor Practice complaint because the district is offering a lower contribution than they agreed to during negotiations earlier this year.
The benefits issue is complex.
District spokesperson Manny Rubio posited the district’s perspective in a November 24 email. The initial question to Rubio was “What is the super-composite rate?”
Rubio responded: “The composite rate is actually something different than what your line of questions are. I'm not actually sure what a ‘super-composite’ is that you are referring to.”
Rubio continued: “The composite rate refers to what employees paid for their insurance regardless of family size. So for example, an employee with no spouse or children would be paying the same rate as a family. The Sweetwater District, like many other districts, purchases our insurance from an organization called the Voluntary Employee Benefits Association (VEBA).
“VEBA dropped the composite rate and created a ‘tiered’ system where what an employee pays is based on their family size. So in our case, it has been set up into three categories: Single employee, employee plus one dependent and employee plus two or more dependents. Employees will no longer paying a ‘composite’ rate, we are now going to be paying a ‘tiered’ rate…. [Formerly, surplus from single employees was used defray the rates of all employees.]
“This is the same rate that has been agreed to by Classified employees and management employees. This increase also significantly reduces the out of pocket cost for all plans regardless of family size. Under the new cap, the cost for most plans for single employees will now be $0 out-of-pocket and the cost for employee plus one is significantly lower in most plans.”
Though there is an obvious discrepancy between the two sides, the good news is that both parties say they want to get back to the table.
In the November 24 email, Rubio stated, “The district is willing to continue the negotiations process with the teachers and earlier this week sent them correspondence indicating that.”