Debating the future of UESF

David Russitano, a member of United Educators of San Francisco, describes the debate at a recent UESF candidates' forum.

TO KICK off a three-week mail ballot election, United Educators of San Francisco (UESF) held an "executive officers candidates' debate" on April 21.

Nearly 100 people turned out to hear candidates from both the Progressive Leadership Caucus (PLC) and the newly formed Educators for a Democratic Union (EDU). This was the largest turnout for a candidates' forum that UESF has seen in many years, largely because the PLC-dominated executive board and officers are being challenged by a new caucus.

One of the main debates was about Proposition A, a school parcel tax that was passed last June. The PLC pointed to the fact that they were successful in getting a raise for teachers in a period in which schools are facing more and more cuts. While this is true, the EDU pointed out many problems with the inside deals UESF has made with the school district to gain support for the ballot tax measure.

Tom Edminster, EDU candidate for vice president, said, "You can't build a strong union by deciding things bureaucratically and autocratically like we did with Prop A...The members of UESF didn't even get to vote on the proposition, except for as taxpayers."

The PLC's response was to dismiss the issue. UESF President and PLC member Dennis Kelly responded, "Although people complain about the way it was done, not a single person has returned the money and said 'I don't deserve that.'"

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THE DISCUSSION around Prop A reveals a larger debate around vision and direction. Linda Plack, current vice president and PLC member, attacked EDU's platform as "simple answers to complex problems, like the slogan 'tax the rich'...Let's get some real action let's not just have slogans that make us feel good."

Adrienne Johnstone, EDU candidate for president, explained that a solution to the budget crunch can't be short-term or just emergency solutions but that "fighting for more certificated staff in our union goes with how we fight for more money. We have to be willing to do more at the site, whether that be walkout, sick-out, strike, or build the strength to do what it takes to get more educators into the union."

This vision is in contradiction to the PLC's strategy of short-term solutions (like pushing to use money from the city's "rainy day fund" to stop layoffs) and making deals that bargain away rights (Prop A).

The debate turned ugly when EDU was faced with personal attacks instead of actual questions about politics and strategy. Among other attacks, EDU candidate Alita Blanc was asked about her "emotional outbursts" and candidate Karen Zapata was questioned about whether picking up her children from child care would keep her from leading in the union. There is no room for these kinds of sexist, personal attacks in what should be a political debate.

The EDU officer candidates held their ground and responded with dignity throughout the debate, despite these attacks. Zapata responded:

It is really hard to be a teacher and a mother and the wife of someone in political office. But I think that gives me the perspective that I bring to this position. If I didn't have young children, I would be at more meetings, but I wouldn't be able bring the passion and vision that I have.

Adrienne Johnstone also responded, saying, "We need a broader vision which includes child care at meetings, so people like Karen can come to more meetings."

Regardless of the election outcome, it will be important for EDU to continue building inside UESF. The economic situation that we are in will require UESF to take a more aggressive stance in the face of budget cuts and worsening work conditions (for instance: increased class sizes proposed for K-third grade teachers).

This situation will require even more member participation than we currently have. Less than 15 percent of the membership voted in the last election for union officers. Given the fact that the last time UESF did a major work action was 30 years ago, this is not surprising. It will take a new vision of what is possible (tax the rich) and what actions will be necessary (sick-outs, slowdowns and strikes) to re-engage our membership.

The vote for EDU in upcoming UESF election will be a key indicator of just how ready our members are for more aggressive action by our union. No matter what the results, EDU can be important force for changing our union well after the election is over.