As we settle into 2015, it’s interesting to reflect on the challenges that we faced last year. We were victorious on so many fronts: We came together to defeat Brand and his unilateral health benefits change; we won a PERB ruling that has positive implications for every CTA local union; we successfully negotiated a contract that made movement in all areas identified by members as top priorities; we reached a favorable resolution on two major arbitrations; we mounted a campaign that saw four of our five candidates elected. It’s no wonder that the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council has recognized the Sweetwater Education Association as “Union of the Year.”
Yet, these victories do not mean that all of our problems have disappeared. There are clearly issues that we must continue to deal with. The election of a new school board, and even the eventual naming of a new superintendent, will not magically make the concerns at sites go away. As President, I've had to intervene in situations where bullying administrators from CPM and HTH created truly toxic environments at their sites. Although we have seen resolution to many of the problems at these sites, we continue to deal with the practice of administrators and district officials ignoring progressive discipline and going straight to suspensions without pay. Dealing with these types of matters, along with salary, benefits, and working conditions, are a part of what unions do as their day to day responsibilities of representation; however, there is so much more we need to address.
It’s not paranoia if they’re really after you
We are living in an environment where public education is undeniably under attack. Since the 1980’s with the publication of “A Nation at Risk,” there has been a strong push to discredit the American public education system. No Child Left Behind and the high stakes testing that came with it, including the new SBAC tests, have been about composing a picture of failing schools, and laying blame squarely on teachers. Why?
According to the US Department of Education there are approximately 98,000 public schools in the United States, serving close to 50 million students. Organizations like ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) and their corporate allies have the agenda of dismantling public education for the simple goal of creating profit-making opportunities. In other words, “If you have failing schools, we have the program that will save them, for the low, low price of…” The only thing that has stood in their way up to this point: teachers unions.
To deal with unions, the narrative of the bad teacher becomes critical. If teachers are to blame, unions are depicted as the root of the problem for protecting them. The next step, then, is to discredit unions and take away their power. In states like Wisconsin and Michigan we have seen the virtual disappearance of union rights in order to eliminate the bargaining abilities of teachers unions. Even in Illinois, where the Chicago Teachers Union has proven to be a powerful force to contend with, the governor has recently signed a decree that effectively attempts to impose right-to-work rules. In California, we have been lucky enough to have a Democratic governor and State Assembly that has resisted this national movement, but we can’t continue to rely on luck. Cases like Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association attempt to circumvent state legislatures and take issues like “fair share payment” out of the hands of elected representatives and put them in the hands of a very unfriendly US Supreme Court.
The success of our union will depend on our ability and willingness to engage with the larger issues before us: high stakes testing, protecting our community schools from the encroachment of charters, the erosion of labor rights, and the de-professionalization of teaching, to name just a few. We can’t leave this battle up to CTA or NEA, as if somehow our state and national organizations exist apart from us. This fight is everybody’s fight.
Our victories over the last 19 months have prepared us to take our unionism to the next level. While we will always focus on our local issues, our every action must be geared towards preserving the promise of public education for all; it’s critical for a democratic society. This is our fight and we need to prepare for it. I hope that you will join me, and your SEA brothers and sisters, as we champion students, teachers, our community, and public education!