Thousands of teachers and other school workers in Sacramento walked off the job Wednesday as the California capital became the second big U.S. school district this month to see a work stoppage over pay and staffing shortages as a teachers strike in Minneapolis entered its third week.
Across the country, union workers are seizing the opportunity posed by tight labor markets to recover some of the power they feel they lost in recent decades as unions shrank in size and influence. And experts expect to see more labor strife as the country emerges from the pandemic.
The Sacramento City Unified School District canceled classes Wednesday at its 76 schools, affecting 43,000 students, after negotiations failed with the Sacramento City Teachers Association and the Service Employees International Union Local 1021.
The unions — representing 2,800 teachers and 1,800 school employees — voted overwhelmingly earlier this month to strike. Teachers say Sacramento has serious staffing shortages despite federal funding and a district budget surplus that it could tap.
"The district has misplaced priorities and no sense of urgency," said teacher union president David Fisher.
These labor actions are part of a trend across the country that started with the pandemic, said Steve Smith, spokesman for the California Labor Federation, which includes SEIU Local 1021.
"Workers are really fed up with poor treatment, generally few safety protections, low pay. Many of these are essential workers who really stepped up to keep our economy going in the roughest of possible times," Smith said.
Bradley Marianno, a professor of education policy at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who studies teacher unions and collective bargaining, said teacher strikes were on the rise before the pandemic, and he expects to see educators making more noise again after two stressful years.
"Tight labor markets create bargaining power," Mariano said, adding: "School districts are saying this: ‘It is difficult to staff classrooms right now.’ And real or not that perception creates bargaining power for teachers unions to negotiate higher teacher pay."
Elsewhere in Northern California, teachers in the Mount Diablo district in the San Francisco Bay Area reached a tentative agreement on Saturday. In Sonoma County’s Cotati-Rohnert Park district, teachers returned to work last Thursday after a six-day strike. Spokespeople for the two largest national educators’ unions said they knew of no other teacher strikes on the horizon.
The Sacramento district said that the 2% pay increase it proposed is what it can afford. It’s also offering to pay 100% of health care coverage.
More than 4,500 educators and support staff are still on strike in Minneapolis, where negotiations often have been acrimonious. The talks have yielded incremental progress on the big issues of pay, class sizes and better mental heath supports for the district’s 29,000 students, but no breakthroughs.
"We’re sticking this out till we get it done," Shaun Laden, a leader of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, said in a video Tuesday.
Union leaders have insisted that the Minneapolis district is flush with cash, thanks in part to pandemic relief funds, while administrators say they aren’t. The district says the "last, best and final offer" it made this week would require at least $10 million in budget cuts.
In a video message Tuesday, School Board Chair Kim Ellison called it "a robust offer" that significantly raises pay and should be more than sufficient "to figure out an agreement that works for both parties and gets our children back in school as soon as possible."
Marianno said that the influx of federal funds is making school district budgets across the country look better, but administrators are hesitant to allocate those short-term funds for long-term raises.
Minneapolis administrators have pointed out that the approximately $70 million in federal aid in their budget is one-time money that would force painful cuts when it runs out if it’s used for long-term obligations.
Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who helped break a stalemate between teachers and the district in 2017, urged both sides there to do everything possible to end the strike immediately.
"Kids have missed enough school. Their education and mental health are at stake. They will continue to suffer if the adults continue to fight among themselves," Steinberg said in a statement Wednesday.