How we organized the walkout

March 17, 2010

Andy Libson, a science teacher at Mission High School and a member of United Educators of San Francisco and the reform caucus Educators for a Democratic Union, describes how his school organized for the March 4 Day of Action.

ON MARCH 4, some 400 Mission High School students and staff left school early and marched through San Francisco's Mission District to join thousands of other students, parents, educators and community members at Mission and 24th Street.

It was an awesome experience. People at our school came together in a way that none of us--even the organizers--could have predicted. The students' participation was immense and cut across all the many races and grade levels in our school. The staff worked together to ensure our safe arrival to Mission and 24th.

Even more surprising were the large numbers of students who participated well beyond the school day (which ends at 3:15 p.m.), marched all the way to the Civic Center and left later than 5 p.m. To get a sense of the spirit of the day, check out the video made by Mission High students at (MYTV episode 16).

The day was a huge success for public education and for Mission High School, but there were many barriers to having a successful walkout and march. There was concern about the fact that we have a large Latino population and our march asked students to cross gang lines by going from Mission High to Mission and 24th Street.

Students from Mission High School joined other San Francisco protesters for a march up Mission Avenue on March 4
Students from Mission High School joined other San Francisco protesters for a march up Mission Avenue on March 4 (David Russitano | SW)

But even bigger than that was the crackdown by the San Francisco Unified School District (SDUSD), which supposedly supported March 4th, but forbid any schools from walking out with their students and participating in activities during "instructional time," or from using "permission of field trip slips" to take part.

Our principal was called less than a week before March 4 with the specific demand that he "shut down" the action planned by Mission High School. There were even requests to give the names of organizers at our site and to let the staff know that there would be "consequences" if we proceeded with our plan.

And yet our plan went forward. We walked out, and no one faced even a verbal reprimand or a word of criticism from SFUSD.

How did this happen? I believe it's worth answering that question because this won't be the last time the staff of a school who decides to take action will face potential resistance and threats from the administration, and will have to stand their ground and move forward. What lessons can be learned from this successful action in the face of administrative pressure?

THE FIRST thing that made the action work was the fact that we started organizing months before March 4. Many of the key organizers among teachers at Mission High are part of a reform caucus, Educators for a Democratic Union, and had participated in the October 24 conference that established March 4 as a "day of action."

We took that energy back to our school and started talking to other staff members months earlier about what might happen on that day. We also came up with an action plan by consulting key stakeholders in the school who have connections to our Latino families, and we included newer teachers in the organizing.

These newer teachers were crucial because they brought much of the energy and enthusiasm that such an action requires, but their participation also gave confidence to other teachers who were less sure.

The starting point for organizing for March 4 was distributing a survey to our staff that explained the purpose of the day of action, and asked teachers and paraprofessionals what they thought we should do.

Mission staff were asked to select from four options: 1) rally after school, 2) rally during school, 3) sick-out, and 4) no action. While a third of the staff was fine with doing just a rally after school, about half the staff preferred the rally during school, and a sizeable portion even wanted a sick-out.

The Union Building Committee (UBC) at our site interpreted these results as an expression of strong support for an action that would take place during the workday, and we created a proposal reflecting that sentiment.

We organized democratically, and not only consulted wide sections of the staff (about 100), but made sure to vote on our proposal for action. The plan was to do a teach-in in the morning, followed by letter-writing and sign-making, lunch, a student-led rally, and then the walkout at 2 p.m.

This proposal was put to the staff a month before March 4. We discussed and debated it, and it passed overwhelmingly with only one opposed and two abstaining. This early planning gave our action a momentum that was vital to its success. Other schools whose actions were much more affected by SFUSD's edict against March 4 actions started much later in the organizing.

Once we had come up with a plan, we then went about letting students and parents know what we were planning. There was strong support expressed by virtually all our parent groups. This increased the confidence of our staff to go forward.

When we finally got word from our principal that SFUSD was demanding an end to our actions (and was suggesting threats to our staff and organizers), we convened a meeting of our UBC to discuss our response. At the meeting, we were united in opposing the district's threats and going forward. The question was how to put this to the staff.

The next day, we issued a statement informing the staff about the district's statements (and its threats)--that our UBC recommended that we go forward as planned. At the same time, we recognized that we needed the support of everyone to proceed, so we called for an emergency meeting the next school day, on March 1 (only three days before the action).

The district's threats did have an effect. Many newer teachers were scared that participating would be one more bad mark against them, with the threat of massive layoffs looming. More experienced teachers who had never gone through something like this were hesitant to proceed because they felt it would unnecessarily endanger our students and our school.

These concerns were real ones and were voiced at the emergency meeting. At the same time, a layer of key leaders in the staff felt that we needed to move forward with the action.

First, we had already talked with our students about doing this, and they were going to be walking out no matter what--we couldn't abandon them. Second, some saw that the district edicts and intimidation only made the walkout more necessary. To back out now would send the message that we could be silenced. The fact that other schools were participating made our participation seem only more necessary to show solidarity and leadership with our brothers and sisters at other schools.

When we reported to our staff that up to 15 SFUSD schools were still preparing to come to Mission and 24th Street, along with several colleges, the deal was sealed, and Mission moved forward to walking out. All these motivations factored into over half our staff agreeing to go forward and participate in the walkout.

The involvement of key community groups and allies like HOMEY, PODER and the Filipino Community Center was crucial. These groups have expertise on issues affecting the Mission and South of Market communities, plus key contacts in these communities and within our student body to give our staff the confidence that the safety concerns raised by SFUSD could be addressed.

These groups are led by young organizers of color and showed the discipline and seriousness required to allay the fears of high school teachers and elementary school parents alike. Their participation was critical to the walkouts happening and to our march's ultimate success.

Still, the district threats (and our union, United Educators of San Francisco, saying that they couldn't protect people's jobs) had a partial chilling effect on our staff. Several felt that they had to wait to participate after school and meet up with us then. They often were apologetic about this, but organizers were clear that any decision reached by staff members (walk out or leave after work) would be accepted and embraced.

It was a joy to see many staff members who had entered our march later in the day at Mission and 16th Street. Almost everyone said that the school was a "ghost town" after the walkout. March 4th was not just a day of unity in fighting the budget cuts among those walking out, but it included those who did not feel safe in participating until later.

MANY STAFF and students ask, "What has March 4th accomplished?"

If you look for answers in Sacramento and City Hall, it might not look like much. These politicians took note of March 4, no doubt, but they hope it blows over, so that they can get back to the business of protecting the rich, destroying the lives of workers and crushing the dreams of our students. For the short term, they very well may get away with their callousness and greed.

I say that something very real, tangible and measurable was accomplished. First and foremost, Mission staff and students are more educated about budget cuts issues--that the money is available if we tax the rich. But more important was the feeling of unity and solidarity that permeated the school in the days afterward.

Many staff members reported that the school felt more upbeat and united after March 4. One student said that he felt like he had more in common with all his classmates, and there was one student who just said bluntly (in front of the entire class), "My life has been changed."

At Mission High School, students learned about Proposition 13 and the law requiring a two-thirds vote in the state legislature to increase taxes. About the cost of maintaining a person in a prison compared to the cost of maintaining that person in a school. They learned about falling employment and falling corporate taxes. About rising California State University and University of California tuitions.

At Mission High School, workers were told that they couldn't take part in the actions, and they went ahead and did it anyway. This story was repeated across the state in thousands of different of ways.

These are the biggest accomplishments of March 4: the changed lives of students and workers across the state; the relationships built between people who crossed gang lines, age lines and racial lines to realize how much we all share in common; and the realization of an ever-growing section of students and workers that some of their leaders who profess to have our interests at heart are, in reality, not on our side.

These developments are the building blocks of a new movement for social and economic justice in California. It's current target it Sacramento. Will it reach there? I believe it will. Will it end there? If socialists and other radicals have anything to say about it, it will not.

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