Sense of Relief

More than 700 people and dozens of educators, dressed in red as an expression of solidarity, attended the Thursday, Feb. 17 Eugene School District 4J and Eugene Education Association bargaining session. Tensions were high after months of back and forth. But finally at 12:03 am Feb. 18, the Eugene School District 4J and EEA reached a tentative contract agreement. 

For Imelda Cortez, a teacher at Kelly Middle School in Eugene and EEA vice president, this agreement was a win for educators. “For me, this is one of the best contract negotiations that we’ve had,“ she says. “I feel like a lot of the things that we were able to agree to are things that are going to benefit students in the long run.” 

Cortez teaches sixth, seventh and eighth grade Spanish Language Arts at the school’s Spanish Immersion Program and says she loves being a teacher. As a first-generation Mexican American who grew up in the 4J district, Cortez says that nearly every teacher she had in school was white. 

Providing representation in the classroom is something Cortez says she feels passionately about and is one of the core reasons that she started teaching. Outside of the financial agreement, Cortez says that other important aspects agreed upon in the contract pertain to recruiting and retaining educators of color and supporting student affinity groups.

This contract, Cortez says, will also help educators of color who experience both micro- and macro-aggressions in the workplace to report their grievances. 

“Being able to feel comfortable within our workplace and having space to communicate what’s going on, and not have that minimized, is a really huge thing,” Cortez says. “It’s so important that kids have that representation within their schools and within the system.”

The prior contract between the Eugene 4J and EEA ended in 2020, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic and its influence on the lack of in-person learning, the bargaining process was put on hold. 

According to EEA President Sabrina Gordon, the first scheduled bargaining session was set for the week that schools closed down in 2020. Unions and school districts pivoted to discussions on COVID-19 working conditions and safety instead. 

“This particular bargain has been unlike any other again, because of just the unique circumstances that all of us found ourselves in,” Gordon says. “It’s been important for educators to feel like they’re being recognized as the professionals that they are, who have held schools together over the last two years and gone above and beyond for students.”

The contract, ratified on Feb. 28, will include a 4 percent increased cost of living adjustment annually for teachers for the next three years and will retroactively cover this past school year. In January, inflation measured by the CPI-U had its largest 12-month increase since 1982, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Over the last 12 months, “all the items index increased 7.5 percent.” 

Oregon is set to lift its mask mandate for indoor public places, including Oregon’s schools, by March 11 at 11:59 pm. The mandate changes won’t impact this agreement, though Gordon expects that it is “likely to cause quite a stir.” 

The contract will also include more time for educators to prepare quality lesson plans for students and support for programs like career education, outdoor school, special education and language immersion. 

Once the agreement was ratified, members had two days to vote, then the contract goes into effect. Cortez says educators are feeling a sense of relief after this long process. 

“This has been a really hard couple of years of teaching. It’s exhausting,” she says. “I feel like we were able to come to a good understanding in terms of in what ways can we show gratitude to our educators. That everything that they’re doing right now through this pandemic is important and that it matters.”

This story is a part of Eugene Weekly’s reporting series on the labor movement in Oregon, funded by the Wayne L. Morse Center for Law and Politics.