Fresno teachers strike is more likely than not now that the Friday deadline they imposed on the district has come and gone, a union leader told Fresnoland. Photo by Julianna Morano/Fresnoland

What's at stake?

Teachers are now expected to take a strike authorization vote in the coming weeks.

Fresno teachers strike is more likely than not now that the Friday deadline they imposed on the district has come and gone, a union leader told Fresnoland.

District leaders refused to give their own forecast of the odds teachers walk out this fall, saying only the union knows the answer to that question. But they insisted Fresno Unified is doing everything in its power to avoid one.

Now, the Fresno Teachers Association’s roughly 4,000 members will move ahead with the strike authorization vote they vowed to conduct Oct. 18 at the Fresno Fairgrounds. 

“Our goal is to make sure that we don’t have a strike,” FTA president Manuel Bonilla said in an interview, “If it happens, it’s because the district has not listened to its educators.”

Bonilla said it’s too early to say how long a strike may last.

For the time being, Fresno Unified is battening down the hatches in case they don’t find a compromise in time. 

The district laid out some of its plans in a resolution in September, authorizing Superintendent Bob Nelson to pay emergency substitutes up to $500 a day in the event of a strike, among other measures.

“​​We believe we’re going to have more than enough hands on deck to make sure that our kids can continue school as regularly as possible,” FUSD spokesperson Nikki Henry said in an interview. “The difference is going to be that there’ll be picketers out front.”

What’s the latest in negotiations?

In early September, the district and FTA participated in a fact-finding panel and hearing before the state Public Employment Relations Board.

The district and FTA await a report from that panel with recommendations on a potential compromise, taking into account the financial feasibility of each side’s proposals.

Nelson said it felt like they were moving closer to an agreement during that process at times – though the union seemed less optimistic.

“We’re confident that as the fact-finding report comes out, the public will see how much we’re willing to compromise and stretch ourselves, to come to something that’s, again, mutually beneficial,” Henry added. “We’re proud of our offer.”

Bonilla meanwhile warned against placing too much stock in the “non-binding” report, authored by the panel’s neutral third-party chairperson, who’s not a “judge” or “forensic accountant.”

“Their role is not to try to, for lack of a better term, fix Fresno Unified. It’s just simply (to say) here’s a recommendation,” he added, “and folks could, on either side, take portions, not take portions, take everything, (or) nothing.”

What could a Fresno teachers strike look like?

Bonilla said the teachers’ strike would likely look different than some of the other high-profile labor stoppages in California over the summer, including the 148-day Hollywood writers’ strike

That was a lot longer than the typical education strike, he said. Other education workers’ strikes in California this year have gone on for shorter durations, including a three-day strike among Los Angeles Unified bus drivers and other support staff in April and a seven-day strike among Oakland Unified teachers in May.

In the event of a work stoppage, the district plans to turn to substitutes, volunteers, and independent contractors, the school board’s Sept. 13 resolution says.

Students’ grades will be given out as per usual, it also says, and “will not be made up or modified” after the potential strike ends.

The district also intends to document employees’ participation in a work stoppage and ensure they don’t use sick leave or other contractual time off if they walk off the job.

That means educators who participate in the strike will have to lose out on daily pay. Bonilla says he hopes this sends a message to the Fresno Unified families.

“What they’re saying is that they’re willing to sacrifice their daily pay in order to improve the school system for their students and for the community,” he said.

“So things like lower class sizes, improving SPED (special education) support, and all the other items that we put across the table,” he added, “teachers are once again going above and beyond by being willing to sacrifice for that.”

What FTA and the district are hoping for

Nelson said his  “single greatest interest” in bargaining is to clarify the negotiation process for future cycles.

The district accused the union in April of failing to adhere to the “interest-based bargaining” they’d originally agreed to. The approach differs from the traditional bargaining method of passing proposals back and forth. Interest-based bargaining instead involves identifying mutual interests between the two parties and then coming up with contract language together.

In May, the district decided to revert to traditional bargaining with FTA.

The “friction” caused by disagreement over what negotiations would entail sapped up time and energy that Nelson said could have instead been devoted to more substantive issues like salary and benefits.

“Don’t erode trust on the wrong things,” Nelson said.

Negotiations have worn down trust on the teachers’ side as well. Bonilla said fears of retaliation for participating in a strike, especially among new teachers, are high.

“This is what we’re fighting against,” he said, “what we’ll call a culture of fear and retribution.”

Regardless of what the next three weeks have in store, both FTA and the district said they’ll continue to meet before, during, and after a work stoppage.

Their next conversation is scheduled for Thursday.

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