Members of the United Teachers of Richmond are taking their frustration out at the ballot box. On Thursday night, 93 percent of the teachers voted in favor of allowing their union leaders to call a strike. Some of them say the bottom line is they feel insulted by the district.
"I believe the strike needs to start on the first day of school," said Eduardo Martinez, a teacher.
The West Contra Costa County Unified School District and its 30,000 students start school Tuesday. The union has agreed to give the district 72 hours notice before they strike.
"It's very scary, money is tight for us and I know it's tight for many people, so I've got my fingers crossed that if we did have a strike that it wouldn't be more than a month," said April Arnoff, a teacher.
Teachers are outraged by the contract the district imposed on them last month. It takes away class size caps, some seniority rights, and free health care benefits.
Historically, the district paid 100 percent of benefits for teachers, their families, retirees and their spouses. Starting January 1, 2010 only employees will be fully covered. That means teachers will have to pay roughly $800 a month to cover their families and new retirees will also have to pay into the plan.
"We know we have worked for years and years and years for lower salaries and in trade for those lower salaries, we have promised health care for our families," said Pixie Hayward Schickele, the teachers union president. "The district promised me that I was going to have health care for my spouse. For them to suddenly say to me 'Oh by the way, now you're going to have to pay it.' If I had known that's how life was going to be, I might have lived my life a little differently, maybe saved a little more money."
"We can't give what we don't have," said school board trustee Charles Ramsey. "The money is not there. We value our teachers, we know they're not important, we know they make a difference every day in everything we do. We respect the teachers, but at the same time the teachers have to be understanding and cognizant of the fact that resources are not there to continue to pay them at the levels they've been compensated in the past."
Last year the district spent $48 million on health care. With state cuts and a budget deficit, district leaders say they simply can't afford it.
"This isn't the time to strike. This is the time for understanding and appreciating that times are hard and that people have to work collectively to solve the fiscal crisis," said Ramsey.
This union has voted to strike before. The last time was three years ago, but they have never actually gone on strike. In the end, they've always come to some kind of understanding with the district at the last minute.