Over 500 Medford school teachers went back to work Feb. 24, ending a 16-day strike with a tentative agreement on a new three-year contract that both sides compromised to achieve.
Medford Education Association members voted Feb. 27 to ratify the agreement. It includes cost-of-living wage increases of 1.9, 2.5 and 3 percent, plus a 2.1 percent salary increase to add back four work days. But some of those gains will be eaten up when teachers’ contribution to health insurance doubles from 5 percent of the premium to 10 percent by the end of the contract. The union also agreed to phase out the current early retirement health insurance benefit. Teachers who retire this year and next can stay on the system’s health insurance plan until they are eligible for Medicare.
Schools closed the first three days of the strike, idling 12,100 students. But the district hired more than 165 substitute teachers, and reopened some schools Feb. 9 on half-day schedules with what even the Medford Mail Tribune newspaper called “dumbed down class selections.” Schools were surrounded by picketing teachers and security guards, and students stayed away. Attendance dropped from 68 percent the first day to 44 percent by the end of the strike.
The Medford School District said it does not plan to add days to the school year to make up for lost instructional time during the strike.
Striking teachers were supported by many parents during the strike, which raised the profile of unions in an area of Oregon where they have been less prominent. A Feb. 15 community solidarity rally organized by Southern Oregon Jobs With Justice drew an estimated 600 participants — more than any Medford demonstration in recent memory. And other labor organizations stepped up in solidarity, including International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), Service Employees, American Postal Workers Union, Oregon Nurses Association, United Food and Commercial Workers, AFSCME, Southern Oregon Jobs With Justice, and the Oregon AFL-CIO community coalition Oregon Strong Voice.
With the support of IBEW Local 659 Business Manager Lennie Ellis, two staff members joined teachers on the picket line with food and helped organize a community support phone bank. IBEW Local 1245 in Vacaville, California, sent two “organizer stewards” to help with strike support for a week.
“We felt like the community got behind it,” said Local 659 organizer John Hutter. “The strike was unfortunate, but it was a great community builder for us and for the teachers. All 600 of them know who we are now, and some of them asked us ‘What can we do to help you when the time comes?’ ”