Union reform challenge in S.F.

March 18, 2009

Andy Libson, a science teacher and building representative at Mission High School in San Francisco, explains why activists in his union are challenging incumbent officers in upcoming elections.

SPRING IS coming. Only for those of us in public education in California, spring isn't a time of renewal and growth, but of pink slips, consolidations and threats of school closures.

But this week in San Francisco, a group of educators have found a reason to celebrate, despite the plans of politicians like Mayor Gavin Newsom, who is threatening to restrict "rainy day" funds set aside for maintaining public services, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is calling for the most draconian cuts in education in decades.

On March 19, activist teachers, paraprofessionals, substitutes and counselors will throw a party (and raise some money) to officially launch a reform caucus within United Educators of San Francisco (UESF).

The caucus is called Educators for a Democratic Union (EDU). EDU will field a slate of candidates in upcoming union elections. Our caucus brings together long-term union activists, progressive education activists around the group Teachers for Social Justice, and a layer of new UESF union activists who would like to see a more inclusive, dynamic and aggressive UESF to face the challenges of a period that even Barack Obama describes as the most difficult since the 1930s.

Members of United Educators of San Francisco at a 2006 rally
Members of United Educators of San Francisco at a 2006 rally (Michael McCauslin)

The battles ahead will require a fighting, democratic union that can mobilize its members and their allies. Unfortunately, that is not the kind of union we currently have.

THE CURRENT UESF leadership, the Progressive Leadership Caucus (PLC), operates neither transparently nor democratically. It took a several-months-long fight by members of EDU on the floor of the union's assembly to force UESF leaders to send a proposal for a dues change to the entire membership for a vote. That should be automatic.

Beyond getting the money designated for education in the city's rainy day fund, few UESF members know what the union leaders' strategy for fighting the budget cuts is. With good reason--because there isn't one.

The PLC leadership will make much of the modest raises for teachers (the biggest raises go to new teachers with master's degrees and PhDs) under Proposition A--the ballot measure passed in June 2008 that set aside tax money for public education. But what many educators don't know is that no money went to the wages of our lowest-paid educators, paraprofessionals.

What you can do

EDU will be meeting March 19 at El Rio, 3158 Mission St., past Cesar Chavez in San Francisco. We urge all UESF members, and brothers and sisters across the city and the Bay Area to join us.

Find out more about EDU's fight at the Educators for a Democratic Union Web site, or e-mail [email protected].

Moreover, Proposition A also made major changes to our contract. These include an extension of our workday by adding up to 18 additional hours of professional development hours per school year. The legislation also strengthened the hand of administrators to evaluate and dismiss teachers, and introduce divisive "combat pay" for hard-to-fill schools like mine, Mission High School.

We need a union that fights for all its members--and that doesn't change our working conditions without the full consultation of the membership and ratification by membership vote. This is Basic Unionism 101--and PLC is getting, at best, a "D."

What's more, the current UESF leadership is either unable or unwilling to answer the hard questions we face today.

Will public education thrive, or face dramatic cuts and school closures? Will our working conditions improve, or will we face increased class sizes and workloads due to layoffs? Will the lives of the parents and students we serve become ever more desperate? Or can we reach out to them and join them in a fight not only to defend public education, but for fully funded social services to support the communities we work and live in?

Ask these questions of most politicians, Democrat or Republican, and you'll get BS answers stressing the need for "belt-tightening" and "shared sacrifice." It's interesting how those workers who didn't get to "share" the benefits of a California economy that tripled in size over the last 30 years are now suddenly asked to "share" the pain of an economic downturn.

Politicians have been cutting public education in California for decades, and now they have an economic crisis to use as an excuse for even deeper cuts. Worse, many unions around the state and across the country are falling for this line.

But those of us forming EDU have an entirely different vision of what's possible today. We believe that it's possible not only to fully fund public education, but to fund all social services adequately.

OUR SOLUTION is simple: Tax the rich.

Currently, the lowest-paid workers in California pay the highest rate of taxes (when you combine income and sales taxes), and the richest 20 percent pay the lowest tax rate. This is totally unjust and needs to be completely reversed. In addition, over half the corporations in California pay no taxes whatsoever.

The reality is that the current California state budget crisis is less the result of a recession and more a result of 30 years of shared criminality between California politicians and the California elite. This must end.

Those of us in EDU know this will not happen without a struggle. The rich in California are hoping--and planning--to push the costs of this crisis onto us as well. Making fully funded education a reality will take a fight. EDU knows that it will take an entirely different type of union to make this goal a reality. EDU believes we need a union where the vast majority of its members are aware of the issues we face and knows our collective strategy for dealing with them.

We need a union that calls on all its members to defend the rights of each and every member, including our most vulnerable--the paraprofessionals and substitute teachers. We need a union that doesn't stop at passing resolutions in support of important social justice issues, but actually organizes in support of them. We need a union that defends the rights of immigrants and stands up for the rights of our LGBT brothers and sisters. We also need a union that actually prioritizes union involvement in the movements to end the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.

To its credit, PLC has supported resolutions and rallies for immigrant rights and opposed the war in Iraq, even though these initiatives were largely originated by those of us in EDU.

What UESF members may not know is that the PLC leadership will brook absolutely no `criticism of Israel. Even during the recent decimation of Gaza that killed more than 1,440 Palestinians, the PLC was unwilling to condemn Israeli aggression without first blaming Palestinians for resisting Israel's sanctions and aggression. Members may agree or disagree on these positions in the union, but we need a union leadership committed to making members aware that these debates even exist.

We in EDU know an informed membership is at the heart of building a strong union. EDU believes we need a union whose strength is located at the base--where each worksite has a knowledgeable and organized Union Building Committee capable of defending its own interests, and of uniting across our school district to stop school closures or layoffs of paraprofessionals.

Why does all this matter? Because in EDU, we believe that building a strong, member-driven union is at the heart of realizing the demand for fully funded public education. That's why we also oppose charter schools and merit pay. These policies are destructive to public education and to the unions that support public education.

Creating a public education system that we can all be proud of will not be easy. It will not take place without a struggle--and will not happen without the combined action of UESF membership, other public sector unions and the students and families we serve.

Win or lose this election, those of us in EDU are committed to forming a rank-and-file organization within our union that is committed to rebuilding our union from the bottom up. That is why we urge all UESF members who want share this vision (or want to hear more about our plans) to join EDU and join us on March 19 at El Rio at 3158 Mission St. for our launch meeting.

EDU stands for much more than just stopping the bleeding that's destroying our livelihood, our schools and our communities. EDU stands for building a fighting union that can be a central part of winning fully funded schools and public services. That's the change we believe in--and it's a fight worth waging and winning.

Further Reading

From the archives