The Sweetwater teachers union for months has talked about a potential strike and last week the Sweetwater Education Association moved closer to it after a majority of the members voted in support of a strike if an agreement to a contract can’t be reached.
On March 13 and 14, 1,443 members out of 1,800 voted in favor of a strike, said SEA President Roberto Rodriguez.
Rodriguez said the 1,443 voters was “the largest voter participation in the history of SEA.”
Rodriguez said he hopes the results of the strike vote show district officials that the union is serious about negotiating a fair contract.
“We’ve been negotiating a contract for over a year now,” Rodriguez said. “There’s been little movement on the part of the district, there’s been the same proposal since November of last year and we believed it was time to make a strong statement. We want the district to realize how frustrated our members are.”
Union members have been negotiating a contract that includes a better health plan contribution, its first pay raise in six years and smaller class sizes.
The strike, Rodriguez said, would be an unfair labor practice strike because he said the district has reneged on a previous health care cost agreement.
Sweetwater trustee John McCann said it’s important both for the district and the teachers to get a deal in place.
“I want our teachers to get a fair agreement and I’m committed to sitting at the table and making sure that we can work together,” he said.
Superintendent Ed Brand issued a letter to staff and community members on March 12 saying that a strike would be illegal.
“Because the parties are currently engaged in impasse mediation, it is unlawful for SEA to threaten, prepare for and/or engage in a strike at this time,” the letter states.
A strike date has not yet been set, but Rodriguez said he hopes the vote “will wake up the district.”
Teachers would be given a 24-hour notice before an official walkout, Rodriguez said.
The union president said a strike will impact teachers financially but said the union is ready to move forward with a strike if need be.
“If we go on strike, we don’t get paid for the days that we’re on strike,” he said.
At the union’s latest rally on March 17, hundreds of teachers gathered in front of the district office to protest the district’s contract proposals.
Superintendent Dr. Ed Brand postponed a March 17 board meeting because board president Jim Cartmill was ill.
Union members said that the superintendent and board members not wanting to confront the teachers was the reason the board meeting was cancelled.
But the cancellation didn’t stop SEA members from rallying.
“They (board members) know just because they cancelled the board meeting that we’re still going to show up,” said Julie Forrey, a special education teacher at Life School.
“We’re going to show up in solidarity and we’re going to support each other and the union.”
Granger Jr. High School English teacher Laura Luchau said she participated in the rally to let district officials know they just can’t go back on their word.
“We figure if those promises (the tentative agreement) can be broken, what other promises can be broken if we don’t stand up now?” Luchau said.
Board member Bertha Lopez said at the rally that teachers are entitled to do what they feel is in their best interests.
“Teachers have the right to do whatever they think is right, if (a strike is) the way to do things, well that’s just the way it is,” she said.
Rodriguez said although teachers are ready to strike, that’s not the goal.
“What we want is an agreement, that’s what we want,” he said.
The teachers’ contract expired last June.