SAN FRANCISCO — School workers and teachers here and across the bay in Oakland are ramping up their struggle in long and difficult contract talks.

A sea of colorful T-shirts — blue for United Educators of San Francisco (UESF) and purple for SEIU Local 790 — filled the street in front of School District headquarters here Oct. 11 as union members and supporters protested the district’s anti-worker stand on a number of issues, including its refusal to provide cost of living increases despite significant new funding.

Some 1,200 custodians, clerks, food service and other school workers represented by SEIU Local 790, working without a contract since June 30, voted overwhelmingly last month to authorize a strike. Heading their list of concerns is family health coverage. A close second is the district’s practice of classifying long-time workers as “temporary” and barring them from benefits.

UESF teachers, without a contract since June 30, 2004, are also upset over the administration’s efforts to destroy rights on the job, including the Union Building Committees which are the teachers’ voice at work.

“San Francisco public school teachers are really committed to work with kids. I love my job and I want to continue,” said UESF member Susan Yelda, a reading recovery teacher at Leonard R. Flynn School. “But it’s unacceptable that we’re working without a contract and even without a cost of living increase.”

Some demonstrators carried signs proclaiming, “Our working conditions are students’ learning conditions.” Other signs, referring to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger calling public workers’ unions “special interests,” declared, “Students are our special interests,” and “No on Prop. 75.” Prop. 75 is a ballot initiative pushed by the governor to curb public workers’ political action.

The efforts of the governor and the school district to blame teachers for problems in the education system “are unwarranted and unprecedented, and will harm education,” UESF spokesperson Matthew Hardy said in a telephone interview.

UESF President Dennis Kelly has pledged unity of teachers and paraprofessionals with custodians, nutritional workers and others.

“Local 790 and UESF are working together as never before,” said SEIU 790 spokesperson Thomas Dewar. Besides family health care, he singled out as “outrageous” the district’s practice of capping some cafeteria and other school workers’ hours at 3.5 per day, cutting them out of benefits. “People elected by the public should be more accountable in their treatment of workers,” he added.

In Oakland, teachers have also worked without a contract since June 30, 2004, and reluctantly took a 4 percent pay cut two years ago.

Oakland Education Association President Ben Visnick said the union’s goal “is to settle a fair contract by Halloween.” However, he added, “we are making plans for a ‘trick’ in case the fact-finding process does not lead to a settlement.”

A key issue is elimination of enrichment programs like science, computers, sports, music and art from many elementary schools, and closing of libraries in many secondary schools. “We feel we have a duty to uphold education in the face of the district’s drive for cuts,” Visnick said.

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