Teaching Profession

Substitutes Unite!

By David Hill — October 06, 1999 17 min read
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It all started with a brief classified advertisement in TheFresno Bee: “If you are an FUSD sub and disenchanted with the pay and working conditions, call (209) 435- 5715.”

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 substitute teachers.

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 hadbeen working in the school system. They served, in the words of the state 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 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.

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. 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.

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 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, becoming the first independent substitute teachers’ union in California, 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 allies: the local teachers’ union.

There are a lot of thankless jobs out there. And then there’s substitute teaching.

Many subs say they frequently put up with indifferent administrators, overcrowded classrooms, low pay, and disrespectful students, to whom a substitute at the front of the classroom represents just one thing: the chance to goof off.

“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,” Smith says, “and they just will not hand in work to somebody else.”

Until recently, most substitutes did not have the clout to better their pay or working conditions. But that’s changing. Lured by full-time teaching positions or higher-paying jobs elsewhere in the booming economy, substitutes in many districts around the country 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. 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, Va. “Subs want benefits. They want in-service 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 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 the 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 a competitor 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, says, “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.

The FASTA subs are tired and frustrated on this hot afternoon in late May. For most of the day, Kirsten, Smith, Hansston, and three other union members have been sitting in a large, bare room at the Fresno office of the Service Employees International Union’s Local 535--an AFL-CIO member that 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."We’ll be dead by the time these negotiations are over.”

Administrators are talking as if they have the upper hand. 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 78,000-student 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 San Francisco Bay area to represent FASTA, tries to reassure the subs. 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 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.

As they waited for a firm tally, Kirsten and the other FASTA board members set about collecting signatures. They set up a sort of pyramid system in which one sub would call several others, who in turn would contact several more. 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.”

It was about this time that Kirsten approached the local teachers’ union for help. In some 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.”

Union officials contended that representing the district’s substitutes could work against the interests of its current members. “I can’t argue against giving [the subs] 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, the giant umbrella group for organized labor-- 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.

Kirsten was thrilled at Whalen’s overture. “We really appreciated being embraced by this union,” she says. In April 1998, FASTA’s board members 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, substitute teachers in Springfield, Mass., joined the United Food and Commercial Workers Union’s Local 1459--another AFL-CIO member--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 there.

In Fresno, the partnership proved critical for FASTA. With help from the SEIU’s professional organizers, the group mapped out a “blitz” strategy to get in touch with substitutes at the district’s 125 schools.

Kirsten says the salary issue proved the key to FASTA’s organizing effort. The group seized on the fact that the district had not bumped up its $65 daily pay rate in 10 years. The nearby Clovis Unified district, 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 of last year, FASTA had collected about 500 signatures. It was clear that was 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, 1998, 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 Fresno Teachers Association, not FASTA. The teachers’ 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 teachers’ union mounted a hard-nosed campaign. It sent out fliers attacking the 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,” the fta argued. “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 for this story were not returned.)

Meanwhile, the Fresno 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 while at the same time blasting the district for offering what the substitutes felt was too little, too late.

“The district thought that would break us,” Kirsten 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 substitutes’ union. The state, meanwhile, authorized FASTA to conduct a mail-in election to verify that its members wished to unionize.

The results, announced this past January, were unequivocal: 294 substitutes favored unionization, while just 49 were opposed. FASTA was now one of only several independent substitute teachers’ unions nationwide. Contract negotiations with the district were scheduled to begin in the spring.

FASTA’s opening bid in the negotiations was ambitious. Under its 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.”

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 disappointment, but since the subs were starting from zero, they had a lot to cheer about.

District administrators said they were satisfied, too. “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 workforce.”

News of the agreement traveled fast, and disgruntled substitute teachers from all over the country have been getting in touch with Shirley 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 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.”


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