Over 3,000 Fresno Unified teachers and educators gathered at the Fresno Fairgrounds' Paul Paul Theater Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023, to launch a strike vote.
Over three thousand Fresno Unified educators gathered for a strike authorization vote at the Fresno Fairgrounds' Paul Paul Theater Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023. Credit: Julianna Morano / Fresnoland

What's at stake?

The Fresno Unified teachers union filed an unfair practice claim against the district Friday while the clock's ticking until the union releases strike vote results.

While the Fresno Unified community waits to see whether teachers will strike, tensions continued to mount Friday after the union filed an unfair practice charge against the district with California’s Public Employment Relations Board.

In the claim, the Fresno Teachers Association accuses the administration of intimidating teachers from participating in a strike, citing labor laws that protect their right to do so. It references written communication from a principal and the district’s chief communications officer, Nikki Henry, in its complaint.

“Fresno Unified is really in panic mode,” said FTA President Manuel Bonilla in an interview Friday afternoon, “and we see the district is actively endorsing intimidation of our educators.”

Fresno Unified confirmed receiving the charge and reviewing the allegations Friday afternoon.

“The district respects the rights of its teachers to engage in concerted activity,” Henry said in a text to Fresnoland, “and will respond to the charge.”

The charge comes two days after the union launched a strike authorization vote to determine whether the union’s roughly 4,000 teachers will walk off the job in pursuit of higher pay, class size caps, and reduced special education caseloads.

Union leaders expect to have votes tallied by the beginning of next week.

The district meanwhile plans to keep schools open for the over 70,000 students in the system in the event of a strike. The school board Wednesday gave their stamp of approval to allocate roughly $3 million toward strike preparations – $410,000 of which will go toward hiring substitutes at a rate of $500 a day.

Henry said that Fresno Unified had roughly 2,200 substitutes certified, finger-printed, and background-checked as of Friday. They anticipate needing 200 more to cover classrooms but plan to deploy management staff who aren’t part of FTA to fill in the gaps.

Fresno teachers criticize district spokesperson, school principal

In the charge filed with PERB, the union shared examples of written communication from district administrators that the union says intimidates teachers against exercising their right to strike.

One of these was a message from Henry to all district employees on the day of the union’s strike vote, stating that “District admin can ask staff if they plan to come to work in the event of a work stoppage.”

Her message added that “no staff member will be reprimanded or negatively affected in any way” no matter how they respond.

The union said the message instructed administrators to “improperly interrogate employees about their intent to participate in a potential strike.”

They’re hoping PERB will order the district to cease and desist from interfering with teachers’ right to participate in a strike.

But this is hardly the first example of tension between Fresno Unified and the teachers union in this bargaining cycle.

The district and union participated in mediation and a fact-finding hearing in early September after declaring an impasse in negotiations with PERB.

Don Raczka, author of the fact-finding report that followed the hearing, wrote that both parties engaged in “disrespectful behaviors” during the mediation process and called for a restoration of trust through the “Interest Based Bargaining” approach to negotiations.

Both Superintendent Bob Nelson and Bonilla have spoken to the erosion of trust on both sides leading up to the union’s strike vote.

What else should parents know?

In addition to keeping schools open during a strike, Nelson said Wednesday that buses will still take students to and from school.

The Fresno Teachers Association primarily represents the district’s teachers, social workers, and nurses. Other employees like bus drivers, represented by separate unions, aren’t legally allowed to participate in a “sympathy strike” due to language in their own contracts and could be disciplined for walking off the job, Nelson said.

Meanwhile, extracurricular activities like sports games and field trips are likely to be canceled. The district may make an exception for high school sports, Henry told Fresnoland on Wednesday, but only if they can do so safely.

Students who stay home from class during the strike will not have their absences excused, district leaders shared Wednesday.

Grades students receive during the strike will be recorded per usual and won’t be made up or modified after the fact, the district shared in September.

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