S.F. Schools Brace for Possible Worker Strike

San Francisco's public schools are bracing for a possible strike by custodians, secretaries and cafeteria workers. The union representing those workers says they are ready to walk out, even it takes a painful toll on San Francisco's schools.

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San Francisco's public schools are bracing for a possible strike by custodians, secretaries and cafeteria workers. The union representing those workers says they are ready to walk out, even if it takes a painful toll on San Francisco's schools. The last big strike did take a big toll 26 years ago. NPR's Richard Gonzales reports.

(Soundbite of union headquarters)

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In the headquarters of the Service Workers Union, Colleen Payne is on the phone spreading the word to fellow members.

Ms. PAYNE: Hello. Yes, I'm calling for Crystal. Hi, Crystal. My name is Colleen. I'm a member of Local 790. Do you know what's going on with our contract negotiations?

GONZALES: Payne, a single mother and a veteran school cafeteria cook, hasn't seen a pay raise for the past three years. Her union is fighting for a 4.5 percent wage hike and improved health-care coverage.

Ms. PAYNE: They say no child left behind, but they're leaving us behind, the people who have to work. San Francisco right now is ridiculous, trying to live here and trying to raise your family.

GONZALES: Across town, school board Chairman Eric Mar is sympathetic to the workers.

Mr. ERIC MAR (School Board Chairman): Yeah, I think the school board is really committed to fair compensation to teachers classified and all the staff in the district. We just don't have the money.

GONZALES: But union leaders dispute that, pointing to recent salary hikes given to top administrators. The union says a strike is likely, but the leadership wants to wait until after the November special election when voters have to decide on Prop 75, an Arnold Schwarzenegger-backed initiative that would severely restrict the money unions can spend on political campaigns. If a strike does happen, the district says it would be devastating. San Francisco's last school strike in 1979 was long and bitter. Twelve hundred teachers stayed on the picket line for six weeks before winning a wage hike. Dennis Kelly, who leads the teachers union, says that strike had long-lasting repercussions in the district.

Mr. DENNIS KELLY (Teachers Union): There are people now, 26 years after the last strike, who can tell you who crossed the line and who didn't. When it has that kind of impact on the educational community, then that radiates through in the way that the schools operate.

GONZALES: The teachers are engaged in their own contract negotiations with the district. Kelly says if the custodians, secretaries and cafeteria workers strike, he expects that many rank-and-file teachers will choose not to cross their picket line. Caught in the middle, of course, are students and their parents. Lorraine Woodruff-Long directs Parents for Public Schools.

Ms. LORRAINE WOODRUFF-LONG (Director, Parents for Public Schools): Yes, I do think the children are being forgotten. They're not talking about what's the impact of this strike, you know, especially assuming teachers don't cross the picket line. What's going to be the effect on the academic performance of children in San Francisco? And that's not being discussed.

GONZALES: This intensely local labor conflict really isn't that local at all, says Ron Bennett. He's the president of School Services of California, an educational consulting group based in Sacramento. Bennett says San Francisco's problems are emblematic of the educational funding crisis throughout California.

Mr. RON BENNETT (President, School Services of California): The fact is, the state of California simply isn't funding public education at the same level that other states in the nation are funding public education, but we're faced with even greater costs than most other states have, and as a result, there isn't enough on the table to serve everybody that appears for dinner, so we do get some pretty abrupt confrontations.

GONZALES: For now, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom is hoping to pre-empt a strike with informal talks with both the union and the school district. Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco.

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