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NEWS & LETTERS, April - May 2008

ESL teachers strike

San Francisco--Our strike at San Francisco Institute of English (teaching English as Second Language) with its teaching staff of 11 people was about the lack of healthcare. Healthcare was taken away in 2004, because after 9/11 homeland security reduced the number of student visas they issued, thus reducing enrollment in the school. The management asked the workers to "share the suffering" which was going to be temporary.

People have not had any cost of living increases. One teacher, who had been there for 12 years, had only three raises which were in the first three years. There is no policy for any other raises, no allowance for seniority, no allowance for cost of living increases.

The school is run as a not-for-profit by a couple. During the whole year I worked there, I had not seen the executive director nor his girlfriend who was the assistant director until about a month before the strike. We found from the school's tax returns they each made over $100,000 per year totaling between them a quarter million dollars. Additionally he got $25,000 in benefits, she got $16,000 in benefits. The teachers average about $18,000 per year.

At a holiday party in December one of the teachers asked, jokingly, "when are we going to get our healthcare?" Our supervisor said "it ain't gonna happen." That was the catalyst for us starting to organize.

We drafted our demands: across the board 30% wage increase and fully paid healthcare benefits. Policy was completely arbitrary. We want clear policies, a grievance procedure, and job security. In our letter of demands signed by 7 of the 11 staff, we asked them to address all these issues.

We presented our letter of demands on Wednesday, March 13. Management said they would need a long time to think about it. We gave him until Friday. Thursday, they offered us a 3% per year raise based on the number of years we’ve been there. But it would apply only to about half the staff. There was no healthcare promise at all. On Friday, we all came from our second or third jobs to meet with them and they failed to show. We got to the school at 7:00 p.m. and it was closed.

Monday morning we decided to strike. We had a lot of community support from labor, teachers, and unions like the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Local 2121 from City College of San Francisco. We had an overwhelming majority of the students with us. A lot of them are from poor Third World countries, who said they have better healthcare than we did. By Wednesday one student told us there were only seven students, when normally there would have been between 50 and 60 for the evening classes.

By Thursday, two teachers who felt the management was not going to budge, resigned. Up until then we had a majority, but with them resigning, others would either resign or stop striking. By the end of the day, to thank the students, we took our strike fund of $600, and had a pizza party. It gave us a sense of closure, because the resignations really ended the strike.

We are calling a general meeting for ESL teachers in San Francisco. We have teachers from four schools. The various independent schools are merging (just like healthcare providers), becoming national chains. Kaplan, a national test-preparation service that also does ESL, merged with Aspect, another national chain. When they merged, they tried to lower every teacher's salary and benefits to the lowest level of any of the merging schools. Those ESL teachers are all angry and talking about striking. We would like to propose that we form an association and share information, create linkages that will allow the next strike to be won and stop the Walmartization of education.

--G.H.

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