Substitutes Unite!

By David Hill — October 01, 1999 19 min read

It all started with a brief classified advertisement in the Fresno Bee: “If you are an FUSD sub and disenchanted with the pay and working conditions, call (209) 435-5715.”

There are a lot of thankless jobs out there. And then there’s substitute teaching. It’s an occupation that only Rodney Dangerfield could appreciate.

The ad was placed by Shirley Kirsten, a transplanted New Yorker and divorced mother of six who had been working as a substitute teacher in the Fresno Unified School District for just seven months. That’s all the time it took for her to realize that in Fresno, a small central California city with lots of big-city problems, subs were at the bottom of the educational food chain.

Kirsten, 52, was trained as a concert pianist at the renowned Oberlin Conservatory of Music. She still performs occasionally, and she also gives private piano lessons at her house. (Her beloved 1917 Steinway sits inside a glassed-off music room.) Music is her passion. But Kirsten is also a born labor organizer. “It’s in my blood,” she says. Her grandfather, who immigrated to the United States from Poland around the turn of the century, organized workers in the garment industry. Her father worked for the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen. Her mother once chained herself to a pillar of a New York City hotel to protest unfair labor practices. (At 84, she’s still an activist.) And her brother is an organizer for the United Auto Workers. With that kind of legacy, Kirsten figured she was just the person to take on the difficult task of organizing Fresno’s substitutes.

For 10 years, Kirsten discovered, substitutes in California’s fourth-largest district had been paid $65 a day-slightly more for long-term assignments. That was about half the going rate in the Los Angeles schools. Fresno subs received no benefits and could be fired after just three negative evaluations, regardless of how long they had been working in the school system. They served, in the words of the state’s education code, “at the pleasure” of the school board. Yet they were an essential part of the system. On any given day, hundreds of subs could be found in the district’s schools, some of them working on 30-day revolving assignments to replace regular teachers on leave.

Indeed, it was one such assignment that made Kirsten’s militant blood boil. In September 1997, she was asked to work a 30-day stint teaching science and math to 7th graders at a tough Fresno middle school. “I call it my ‘30-day disaster,’” she says. “It was the beginning of the school year, but I was given no lesson plan and no help from the administration.” Her students-immigrants from Russia, Afghanistan, Thailand, and Vietnam-spoke little or no English. “I just stood there in front of the class and got blank stares.” It was a sink-or-swim situation, and somehow Kirsten managed to dog paddle her way through it. “I realized I had become a regular teacher, only without the pay,” she says. “The administration didn’t give a hoot about these kids. They were being put at great risk, both emotionally and academically, by not having a permanent teacher they could bond with.” When Kirsten’s 30 days were up, another sub was brought in for 30 more.

“I was angry,” says Kirsten. “I decided we needed to form a union, and I was determined to do it.” As a result of her ad in the Bee, about 10 Fresno subs contacted Kirsten, who quickly set up a meeting at her suburban house. “Everybody was comparing stories about being a sub,” she says. “We formed a very tight bond almost immediately.”

Karla Hansston was there. She had been subbing for about eight years but was thinking about quitting because of the low pay and difficult working conditions. Her mother stumbled upon Kirsten’s newspaper ad. Politically conservative, Hansston was leery of labor unions. “But something needed to be done,” she says. “And when I met Shirley, I thought, This is somebody who can do the job.”

Tom Smith was there, too. Now 55, he began substitute teaching in 1996, after the company he was working for went belly-up. Smith wasn’t just skeptical of unions, he was anti-union. “I once had to locate a distribution center for a publishing company,” he says, recalling his days as a businessman, “and the main criteria was, where could we get the cheapest labor?” Yet here he was, meeting with other disgruntled substitutes, trading war stories, and talking about starting a union.

And that’s exactly what they did. Shortly after that first meeting, FASTA-the Fresno Area Substitute Teachers Association-was born. (The group’s slogan is “The FASTA the better.”) Kirsten was elected president, while Smith and Hansston were elected vice president and treasurer, respectively.

But forming a union on paper was one thing. It was quite another to become the official bargaining unit of Fresno’s many substitute teachers. That would require a full-scale organizing campaign, something that no one in FASTA-not even Kirsten-had ever done. Eventually, the subs would prevail, but not before they overcame aggressive resistance within Fresno’s education community. The district, naturally, was none too keen on the idea of a substitute union and fought the subs hard. But Kirsten and the others also found themselves bitterly battling a group that they had assumed would be their ally: the local teachers’ union.

There are a lot of thankless jobs out there. And then there’s substitute teaching. It’s an occupation that only Rodney Dangerfield could appreciate.

Subs often complain of being treated as second-class citizens. Many say the pay is simply too low to make up for the disrespectful students, indifferent administrators, overcrowded classrooms, and lack of job security and benefits. In some districts, rookie subs end up working in the toughest schools with the most disruptive students. And for many kids, a substitute represents just one thing: the chance to goof off-big time.

“As a sub,” says FASTA’s Smith, “you’re raw meat. You’re game. And sometimes it’s very frightening.” It’s not unusual, he says, to arrive at a classroom and find no seating chart, no lesson plan, no guidance whatsoever. Some students will not do any work for a substitute. “They feel for some reason that it’s a personal thing between them and the teacher,” he says, “and they just will not hand in work to somebody else.” Classroom control is one of the biggest challenges for substitutes. For that, Smith carries a secret weapon: a metal whistle. “If I can’t get any attention from the kids, I will blow it as loud as I can. It works.”

Once, while Kirsten was subbing at a Fresno high school, her second-period students failed to appear. “Suddenly,” she says, “the classroom was empty, for no apparent reason. So I called up the office and asked if there was an assembly going on.” There wasn’t. “When I looked out in the hall, I noticed a sign on the door that said, ‘Sub says we’re meeting in the north gym, second period.’ So I had to go round them up and bring them back.” She laughs about the incident now, but it wasn’t so funny at the time. “They do some wacko things,” she says.

Sensing they have new leverage, some subs are seizing the moment to unionize.

Until recently, most substitutes did not have the political clout to better their pay or working conditions. But that’s changing. In a number of districts around the country, substitutes, lured by full-time teaching positions or higher-paying jobs elsewhere in the booming economy, have become scarce. Districts that once took subs for granted are now aggressively courting them. Many have increased their daily pay rates. Others have attempted to hire full-time, on-call subs to handle the shortage. But some districts still can’t find enough of them. In Chicago, officials are recruiting police officers and firefighters to work in schools in high-crime areas, where substitutes fear to tread.

Sensing their new leverage, some substitutes have decided the moment is ripe for organizing. “Now is the time to do it, while there’s a severe shortage,” says Eleanor Hinton, an activist in Petersburg, Virginia. “Subs want benefits. They want inservice training. They want the same things that regular teachers have.” Hinton is planning a first-ever national conference of substitutes, to be held in Washington, D.C., next July. “We’re pioneers,” she says. “We want to see a national organization for substitutes, with all the local groups falling under the same umbrella.”

Warren Fletcher has worked as a substitute in Los Angeles for 17 years. He now earns $136 a day, which is near the top of the sub pay scale. A longtime labor organizer, he is director of the California Project Organizing Substitute Teachers, or C-POST. (Fletcher helped FASTA get off the ground.) He, too, would like to see a national organization for substitutes. “But the first thing we need to do is organize locally, like the teachers in Fresno have done,” he says. The goal of C-POST “is to get substitutes hooked into the collective bargaining process. Eventually, we’d like full benefits and due-process rights, just like regular teachers have.”

Until recently, Fletcher was head of the National Education Association’s caucus on substitute teachers. At the NEA’s 1998 representative assembly in New Orleans, he helped push through a resolution supporting the right of substitutes to organize for collective bargaining purposes. But he believes the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers, which both represent subs in some districts, sometimes feel threatened by groups like FASTA and regard them as competitors for power. “And that’s a mistake on their part,” he says. “I’m a proud member of the NEA, but I think it and the AFT have been tremendously shortsighted when it comes to substitutes.”

Not true, say representatives of the two unions. Jamie Horwitz, a spokesman for the AFT, argues, “We do want to organize substitutes, and we already represent quite a few of them, especially in New York state.” Echoes NEA spokeswoman Kathleen Lyons, “We think substitutes ought to organize for collective bargaining. All of us in the education world are better off if we’re organized, particularly if we’re in the same union within the same school district. We leave it up to our local affiliates as to how they want to do that.”

Lyons admits, however, that subs aren’t a top union priority. “One could make a strong argument that we need to spend more time dealing with substitutes,” she says.

It’s 3 o’clock on a hot afternoon in late May, and the FASTA subs are tired and frustrated. For most of the day, Kirsten, Smith, Hansston, and other union members have been sitting in a large, bare room at the Fresno office of the Service Employees International Union’s Local 535-which has taken FASTA under its wing-trying to hammer out an agreement with representatives from the school district. It’s a slow, tedious process, and the subs don’t seem to be getting anywhere.

“This is a complete lesson in futility,” says Smith, dressed in casual preppy attire-blue blazer, gray slacks, brown loafers, yellow button-down shirt, no tie. “We’ll be dead by the time these negotiations are over.”

Kirsten, who’s wearing an elegant ivory-colored jacket over black slacks, says, “I think the message that’s coming across to me from the district is, ‘Even though you guys are unionized, things are status quo as far as we’re concerned.’”

Indeed, administrators are talking as if they have the upper hand in the negotiations. Though Kirsten and others say Fresno faces a shortage of subs, administrators contend that they’ve largely escaped the substitute crunch that’s squeezing many districts. “We’re very fortunate,” says the school system’s human resources director, Teri Briar.

The district doesn’t appear likely to concede anything to the subs. “Right now,” says Briar, a member of the district’s negotiating team, “our proposal is for things to remain status quo. I think the substitutes expect the same rights as teachers, and I’m afraid that’s just not possible.”

Howard Walker, a tough-talking SEIU negotiator who’s been brought in from the Bay Area to represent FASTA, tries to reassure the subs. “This is about normal for a first contract,” he says in a been-there, done-that voice. Right now, he says, the district is being stubborn. “But hopefully, we’ll be able to get something. I’m always hopeful. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here.”

Kirsten also tries to put a positive spin on the situation. “We’re disappointed at the way things are going,” she says, “but just the fact that we’re sitting at the bargaining table is an incredible state of affairs.”

Two years ago, after that first meeting at her house, Kirsten and her colleagues faced the daunting task of organizing a labor force that is notoriously hard to pin down. That’s because substitutes are always on the move, going from school to school, filling in wherever needed. Kirsten wasn’t even sure how many subs actually worked in the district. By law, FASTA was required to get a simple majority-50 percent plus one-of the district’s subs to sign a petition. But 50 percent of what number?

Initially, the district provided FASTA with a list of about 900 active, certified subs. A month later, however, the district estimated the number was closer to 2,000, maybe more. Kirsten thought that unlikely. After all, the district employed about 4,000 full-time teachers. How could there be 2,000 subs? Kirsten accused the district of playing “list games” in an attempt to demoralize the FASTA subs. Not so, district administrators responded.

As they waited for a firm tally of subs from the district, Kirsten and the other FASTA board members set about collecting signatures. “We did this very surreptitiously,” Kirsten says. “We didn’t want to call attention to ourselves.” Some subs were afraid that if the district learned of their unionizing activities, they would find themselves out of work. So they set up a pyramid system in which one sub would call several others, who in turn would contact several more. More than 50 supporters turned out for a membership rally at Fresno’s Hoover High School. The Bee ran several articles about the union as well as a sympathetic editorial. “It’s not surprising that substitute teachers in Fresno are upset with their pay and working conditions,” the newspaper reasoned. “Substitute teachers work under trying conditions, and the role that they play in the education system has seldom been appreciated by school administrators or even the full-time teachers they replace.”

By March of 1998, FASTA had about 250 signatures. “According to the state labor laws,” Kirsten says, “we only had a year to get the signatures, and six months had already gone by. I was starting to get nervous.”

The local teacher’s union didn’t support the substitutes. Raises for subs “comes from the same pot of money [from which] we are seeking raises,” the union president said.

It was about this time that Kirsten approached the local teachers’ union for help. In some school districts-Los Angeles, for example-substitutes are represented by local affiliates of the NEA or AFT. Kirsten thought FASTA could become part of the Fresno Teachers Association, an NEA affiliate. “I called them, thinking that they were our friends,” Kirsten says, “but they blew me off.”

Publicly, union officials contended that representing the district’s substitutes could work against the interests of its members. “I can’t argue against giving them a raise,” Carol Massey, the FTA’s president at the time, told the Bee, “but on the other hand, that money comes from the same pot of money [from which] we are seeking raises.”

Pam Whalen, an organizer with the aggressive Service Employees International Union’s Local 535, read the article in the Bee and was furious at the FTA. “They had every chance to organize these people,” she says, “and they decided not to for political reasons.” Local 535-which, like the AFT, is part of the AFL-CIO-represents thousands of public-sector nurses, social workers, lawyers, librarians, and others throughout California. Teachers have never been part of the mix. But Whalen could tell that FASTA needed some help, so she contacted Kirsten and arranged a meeting with the subs to make a pitch for representation. At the same time, Whalen touched base with the AFT in Los Angeles. “They said, ‘Go for it,’” she recalls.

Kirsten was thrilled at Whalen’s overture. “We really appreciated being embraced by this union,” she says. In April 1998, FASTA’s board voted to become an SEIU affiliate. “It was a marriage made in heaven,” Kirsten gushes.

The alliance isn’t as odd as it seems. Last year, subs in Springfield, Massachusetts, joined the United Food and Commercial Workers Union’s Local 1459-another AFL-CIO affiliate-after an unsuccessful attempt to hook up with the Springfield Education Association, an NEA group. “They never returned our phone calls,” says Jonathan Tetherly, who helped organize the subs.

In Fresno, the partnership proved critical for FASTA. With help from SEIU’s professional organizers, the group mapped out a “blitz” strategy to contact substitutes at the district’s 125 schools. At first, district ad ministrators tried to bar organizers from entering the schools, but they quickly agreed to give them access before and after school and during lunch breaks. “We did that for about two or three weeks,” Whalen says, “and we got about 200 more signatures.”

Kirsten says the salary issue proved the key to FASTA’s organizing effort. The group seized on the galling fact that the district had not bumped up its $65-a-day pay rate in 10 years. Nearby Clovis Unified, meanwhile, was offering its substitutes $79 a day, and Central Unified was paying $80 a day. “People were jumping on our bandwagon because of that $65 a day thing,” Kirsten says. “They were furious about that.”

By May, FASTA had collected about 500 signatures, which was more than enough to satisfy the state’s 50 percent rule. District officials had completed their official count of subs, and the number was not 900 or 2,000, but more like 700. So on May 26, FASTA filed a petition with the state’s Public Employees Relations Board to grant the union the right to represent the subs at the bargaining table.

With FASTA on the verge of becoming a new force in Fresno, the local teachers’ union had a sudden change of heart. Subs, officials announced, belonged in the FTA, not FASTA. The group, which had a new president, filed its own petition with the state asking to become the official bargaining unit for the district’s substitutes. By law, it needed the signatures of 30 percent to force a vote of the subs to decide who would represent them: FASTA or the FTA.

To get the required signatures, the FTA mounted a hard-nosed campaign. It sent out fliers attacking SEIU’s Local 535 as “an outside union with no experience in representing educators.” A separate union for subs “is not in the best interest of substitutes or regular classroom teachers. Apparently a small group of FASTA leaders are allowing their past anger toward FTA to cloud their judgment.”

“It was such a betrayal,” Kirsten says. “We were so angry. I believe that it was a political thing. The FTA realized that 535 would have much more of a foothold in negotiations with the district, and that the subs would have a bigger piece of the pie, and they were afraid of that power.” (Calls to FTA President Larry Moore were not returned.)

Meanwhile, the school board voted to increase the daily pay of regular substitute teachers by $10, to $75. “We’ve always known the pay was a bit low,” Superintendent Carlos Garcia told the Bee, “but until now we haven’t been in the position to offer more.” FASTA took credit for the raise-"It could not have happened without our determination, hard work, and commitment to improving the plight of subs!” Kirsten wrote in a letter to members-while at the same time blasting the district for offering too little, too late.

“The district thought that would break us,” she surmises, “but we used it as a rallying point to show the subs what was possible.”

Eventually, the FTA failed to get enough signatures to call a vote and challenge the sub union. The state, meanwhile, authorized FASTA to conduct a mail-in election to verify that its members wished to unionize. The results, announced in January, were unequivocal: 294 substitutes favored unionization, while just 49 opposed. FASTA was now the first independent substitute teachers’ union in the state of California, and one of only several nationwide. Contract negotiations with the school district were scheduled to begin in the spring.

FASTA’s opening bid in negotiations was ambitious. Under their contract proposal, regular subs would earn $110 a day, rather than $75, and long-term subs would get $150. Substitutes who worked more than 90 days during the school year would qualify for health benefits and sick leave. A comprehensive grievance procedure would allow subs to appeal negative evaluations. Schools would be required to provide subs with written lesson plans and up-to-date seating charts. “We’re asking for quite a lot,” Kirsten admitted in May, as negotiations were under way.

The district countered with a 10-page proposal that mostly reiterated previous policies regarding substitutes, with the addition of a limited grievance procedure. Regular subs would continue to earn $75 a day, while long-term subs-those working more than 20 days at one assignment-would receive $85. “Our wages for substitutes are not out of line, by any means,” said the district’s Briar. If the FASTA subs get what they want, she added, “the cost to the district is going to be huge. This is for an on-call bunch. Even some of our part-time employees who have been with us for 20 years may not have benefits.”

Negotiations continued throughout much of the summer. Finally, on July 29, the two sides reached a tentative, three-year agreement. The district agreed to pay regular substitute teachers $80 a day, with additional cost-of-living increases scheduled each year. Subs who work more than 20 days on the same assignment will get $90 a day, retroactive to the 11th day of teaching. The district also agreed to a three-step grievance process for subs. Under the new contract, any negative evaluations of substitutes will expire after four years. (FASTA wanted them to be removed after two.)

FASTA subs saw the contract as a clear victory. Health benefits and sick leave were not included, which was a big disappointment, but since the subs were starting from zero, they had a lot to cheer about. “This is tremendously better for subs,” Kirsten said just after the deal was struck.

District administrators said they were satisfied, too-at least in public. “We are very pleased with the end result,” Briar said.

But the Bee slammed the district for its “awkward handling of labor relations involving substitutes....Fresno Unified had to work hard to make this contract a necessity. Its treatment of substitute teachers was so shabby that it motivated a group of underpaid and fiercely independent people to shell out money and time for a union just to get decent working conditions.” The contract, the newspaper added, “also is a belly punch for the Fresno Teachers Association, which never adequately addressed the needs of this work force.”

Thanks in part to FASTA’s Web site, news of the agreement traveled fast, and disgruntled substitutes from all over the country have been getting in touch with Kirsten. “We’ve sort of become the national poster child for subs,” she says. “They want to find out how they can start a union.” Kirsten hopes to tell her inspiring story next summer at the national conference for substitutes.

Meanwhile, the hard-fought success of FASTA, which now has about 300 members, has got Kirsten dreaming big. “What we need is the equivalent of the NEA for substitutes,” she says. Today Fresno, tomorrow the world. “This is going to reverberate nationally. It’s going to be contagious.”