Campaigning for the ranks

Cesar Montufar talks about his campaign for head of the Long Beach teachers union.

Long Beach teachers rally during contract negotiations with the school districtLong Beach teachers rally during contract negotiations with the school district

I JUST ran unsuccessfully ran for president of the Teachers Association of Long Beach (TALB). The vote tally was 288 for me and 569 for the incumbent President Virginia Torres. As an open socialist, I pulled 34 percent of the vote for president of the union, running on the idea of getting all our members involved in activism.

My decision to enter the race came late--barely a month before the elections. I chose to run when the progressive candidate I was going to support backed out. This left me with very little time to prepare a campaign beyond simply getting a flyer together, distributing it and engaging in about a dozen conversations with teachers, individually or in small groups. I had the help of about a dozen people with distribution, and maybe a dozen more (beyond my own school site) with word of mouth.

But the lack of time was only one factor in the election result. The more important issue is that the union has unwittingly stewed itself in apathy. Voter turnout was only 25 percent.

As we go into a brutal fight for the future of schools and the nature of our profession, fully three-quarters of our teachers didn't vote. I'm sure some chunk of that is just people not seeing the election as making a difference in that fight. Part of this was my failure to galvanize people. But I honestly think the much bigger portion of nonvoters are people who just don't see the union as something that can defend the profession.

We've watched our peers be let go in massive numbers, and the union has been powerless to do anything but police the order in which folks were fired. People are battening down the hatches and trying to weather the storm inside their classrooms.

I still think that the decision to run was a good one. Winning would have been a breakthrough, but the point was organizing--using the election to get a message out about a different way to run a union. Nearly 300 teachers voted against an incumbent who had not screwed up in any visible, obvious way to vote for a plan focused on rank-and-file organizing. Nearly 300 people have expressed a desire to fight back, and gained a sense that they are not alone.

These are seeds, and in the next few years, we can count on Obama fertilizing their anger--and the grassroots organizing can get moving.