Since 1990, Carol Wright has held the unglamorous title of substitute teacher.
She works three jobs, clips coupons and spoils herself with a vacation every five to 10 years. Her modest, one-story home in San Bernardino has a minifridge and no stove.
She's put up with years of low pay and students who don't like to listen to a "sub" and, in exchange, has avoided the grind of a full-time job.
But for Wright and the approximately 800 other substitute teachers in the San Bernardino City Unified School District, the trade-off recently became a little less painful.
After more than a year of negotiations, substitutes in the 56,000-student district finalized their first union contract in December, locking in a modest pay raise and a guarantee of certain employee rights.
"We decided that we, as substitutes, had value, and nobody was getting any benefits, and the pay was crummy," Wright said. "I just thought, 'It's about time.' "
The San Bernardino Assn. of Substitute Teachers is the first of its kind in the Inland Empire, but already the idea is catching on. Rialto Unified School District substitutes have begun to organize, and officials with the Communications Workers of America, which represents the San Bernardino substitutes, say they want to expand throughout the Inland Empire.
In Los Angeles Unified and other large school districts, substitute teachers have long enjoyed contracts that provide more generous daily wages, health insurance and a clear procedure to deal with complaints from students or parents. But in smaller districts such as San Bernardino, where substitutes had not received a raise in 10 years, the union concept was a tougher sell.
"I had a lot of help, but there was a lot of resistance on the part of substitutes because they felt they would lose popularity and stop getting called for jobs," said Donald Hall, 74, a retired-teacher-turned-substitute who organized the San Bernardino union.
"But how were they going to get these pay increases? Was each one going to go to their principal's office and individually ask for raises?"
In 2000, Hall and a core group of union organizers met in each other's homes and set out to start the long process of unionizing. They petitioned the state's Public Employees Relations Board, which gave them a year to collect signatures from a little over 50% of the district's substitutes. In late 2001, the district's substitutes voted to form a union. They enlisted the help of the Communications Workers of America, knowing that they were ill-equipped to go into a boardroom and negotiate with school district lawyers.
The substitutes asked for higher wages, health insurance and a set grievance procedure to appeal termination or complaints. They requested $135 a day and walked out with $95. Before, they made $90 a day. Credentialed teachers who have retired from the district now make $115 a day, up from $110.
If they are fired or removed from the district's pool, the district has five days to notify them in writing so they can answer any allegations, said Mike Crowell, president of CWA Local 9588.
Unionizing substitutes, who are usually temporary or part-time workers, has proven to be a difficult task. Their schedules vary, so merely contacting them is a challenge. They can be fired without explanation, which makes some hesitant to make demands that may anger school administrators.
"They're difficult to negotiate for, and they're difficult to protect because under state law they can pretty much be fired at any time," said John Perez, president of the Los Angeles teachers union. "From our point of view, it is important to have them in our union because they're teachers, and any student in their career is going to have a lot of days when they're going to have a substitute."
In California, substitutes must have a bachelor's degree and pass a standardized teachers exam but don't need a teaching credential.
Substitute teachers in smaller districts are slowly organizing, said Shirley Kirsten, president of the National Substitute Teachers Alliance, which was formed in 2000 for substitutes hoping to unionize.
Substitute teachers say they understand that they might never enjoy the same pay and economic stability of traditional teachers. But in an era of standardized testing and mandated lesson plans, substitute teaching has become more exacting and rigorous, union officials said, and their compensation should reflect that.
"We're not babysitters," Kirsten said. "We're expected to translate the lesson plans given into a fully, working productive day. We're not showing movies or wasting time."
In recent years, substitutes in Fresno, San Bernardino, Yuba City and Calaveras County have formed unions or are now represented by a larger union.
Kirsten, who organized Fresno substitutes, said she fields phone calls from teachers nationwide. Hall and the San Bernardino group stayed in touch while they were organizing, she said.