We have to start somewhere

Adrienne Johnstone, a member of United Educators of San Francisco (UESF) and the Educators for a Democratic Union caucus in her union, sas it's time to draw a line.

Members of United Educators of San Francisco at a protest

I AM a member of United Educators San Francisco, AFT Local 61. I teach 9- to 11-year-olds. I am a union activist and a socialist. And I am urging every single one of my coworkers to vote "NO" on our contract.

The biggest mistake our union made this spring was to cancel the general membership meeting to authorize a strike vote. At the mere threat of a membership meeting, San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), which had not budged in bargaining, finally agreed to reduce the number of teacher and paraprofessional layoffs.

After initially threatening to pink-slip over 900 educators in our 6,000-member union, SFUSD was ready to settle for an agreement to layoff 200 teachers and an unspecified number of paraprofessionals in exchange for $39 million in concessions.

Our union could have pressed forward and insisted that the membership vote could not be cancelled without rescinding all layoffs. But sadly, our union leadership is ready to settle, too, and has urged our members to vote for this agreement.

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Hear Adrienne Johnstone at Socialism 2010 in Oakland, speaking on "Education and Liberation: Radical Pedagogy." Check out the Socialism 2010 Web site for more details. See you at Socialism!

SFUSD piled on the pressure this past week, sending out coercive letters to some teachers on the layoff list this week, promising approximately 157 of those teachers that they would get their jobs back if the concessionary contract was agreed to.

I have been accused of utopian idealism and unrealistic militancy for taking this position--for insisting that what my union claimed was true. When they told us that the district had enough money in its over $43 million in reserves to save these jobs, I believed them. When they told me the district spent $52 million a year on consultants, and that some of that money could be used to save jobs, I believed them.

Our union gives up $39 million in concessions in a school district loaded down with high-paid administrators, do-nothing consultants and maintaining reserve funds for unknown purposes, and somehow I am the one being called unreasonable for insisting that the money is there to stop all the layoffs.

If the school district has the money, and if we haven't even begun to fight, how could I encourage others to settle for this? How could I settle for this when I know what it's going to mean for the students I teach? How could I settle for this when I know the names of the teachers in my school who will not have a job next year--when I know the names of the students who will see their teacher lost to a district that has its priorities backwards?

Is it idealism to insist that the school district save educators' jobs when it has money to do so? Is it militancy to ask why we stopped fighting for our members at the very moment the district started giving in? Is it unreasonable to ask why we stopped short when we had only just begun to fight? How could I encourage others to settle for this?

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STILL, AS important as the jobs of our colleagues are today, this struggle is also about our collective future.

This fight is not only about those teachers and paraprofessionals who are losing their jobs or the even steeper cuts we're likely to face next year. These attacks aren't ending any time soon, and they aren't confined to the public schools. We are at the beginning of a protracted struggle for the future of public education--for our students' access to college and for the unions that are key to this fight. I say this as a union activist and socialist, but I do not think I am alone in recognizing this.

The California budget crisis, the Obama administration's Race to the Top program that offers additional funding in exchange for "reforms," and the reauthorization of ESEA (known in its most current form as No Child Left Behind) are all being used to attack educators' unions.

The government is setting conditions to maintain high turnover in this profession, driving down costs for the salaries, benefits and retirement that we have fought for. Union-busting charter school operators are dumbing down teaching and learning, reducing it to test preparation curriculum and excluding the neediest of our students from education that is often their only hope for advancement.

The pragmatists don't want to hear this. They want to scare us into concessions now with fear of "state receivership" and imposed contracts. But we have to have a longer view.

We are sick and tired of being treated as passive recipients of the best the district wants to offer, when we are the ones who actually teach every day and witness what the growing economic crisis is doing to us and to the families we serve. Our unions hold the potential to organize a struggle to push back against the wrecking ball being brought down on public education.

The people who are arguing to take this deal now and organize later don't believe this. They say nothing can be done now, and that the real fight starts at the ballot box in November when we elect our so-called friends in the Democratic Party. Is electing politicians who promise little and deliver even less a strategy for change? Who is the utopian idealist here?

The problems that we face and that our students face are immense and growing. Many of our children arrive to school hungry every day, and go home to crowded apartments with unemployed parents--while BP pumps 25,000 barrels of oil each day into the Gulf of Mexico, war and occupation continue in Iraq and Afghanistan, and undocumented college students are arrested for trying to get an education.

Our tiny fight against 200 layoffs in San Francisco may seem disconnected, but it is not. It sends a message to our opponents that we cannot be easily pushed around, and more important, it sends a message to our allies in the community that we are prepared to join them in struggle.

Imagine sending a loud and clear message to Sacramento and to the city, that we will not balance the school district's budget on the backs of our students and fellow educators. That's what a NO vote on this contract would do. We are sending a message, and UESF leadership has to go back to the bargaining table and start making plans to strike in the Fall.

Our brothers and sisters in Oakland showed what is possible when you find the resolve to strike. Oakland Unified School District tried imposing a contract on the Oakland Education Association (OEA), but ended up limping back to the bargaining table after a successful one-day strike built on the support of the overwhelming majority of the teachers and community. We should be joining OEA in struggle, not joining other unions in giving in.

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IMAGINE THE confidence it would give us all if our union waged a successful fight to save all of our jobs. Imagine the confidence it would give our communities that are ransacked by unemployment, foreclosure and ICE raids if we showed that working people can and will stand up for what they believe in.

Imagine the impetus we could give to other struggles. Educators' unions could play a central role in fighting Gov. Schwarzenegger's plan to eliminate welfare in the state of California and cut mental health services by 60 percent.

Imagine the second thoughts in the Obama administration--about pushing through more merit pay, more charter schools, more testing regimens--if this struggle spread to other school districts. Imagine unions that, having learned how to fight the most basic fight--the fight against lay offs--learn how to use their entire weight to push for smaller class sizes, health care for children in schools, adequate school breakfast and lunch programs and free after-school programs.

That is the power of the union and of working people as a whole when we organize to use our power at the workplace and when we strike to win our demands.

Imagine if we lived in a society that was organized for human need and not for profit. Our schools would be more than adequately funded, and educators would make instructional decisions, not politicians and policymakers far removed from the work of teaching.

That is the kind of world worth struggling for, and one that won't just come into being in some future time when everyone is more enlightened, and the rich have been convinced to give up their obscene profits. It's a world we have to struggle for.

We begin that fight with the baby steps of basic union solidarity. We have to hold the line here against these 200-plus layoffs, and say enough is enough. That's why I am voting "NO" on the tentative agreement that includes layoffs of our co-workers--not just to preserve their jobs, but to preserve our dreams of a better world. A better world that can only come through struggle.

It has to start somewhere. Why not here?