Published in the March 27, 2015 Noozhawk.
More than 600 delegates, staff and guests. Fifty-four different union locals represented, from one end of California to the other.
Speakers as diverse as state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson; State Controller Betty Yee; Assemblyman Jose Medina, R-Riverside, chairman of the Assembly Higher Education Committee; and educator/motivational speaker Jeff Duncan-Andrade.
Powerful, inspiring singing by the Crenshaw High School choir. Live performance poetry by young poets who aren’t afraid to address subjects others shy away from.
Workshops on topics as varied as racial justice, income inequality, universal health care, the future of adult education, progressive tax policies, union political action, online organizing and community involvement.
Vendors offering union-related wares. Camaraderie, warmth and a general atmosphere of determination, hope and purpose.
All this and much more was part of the 73rd annual California Federation of Teachers convention, held March 20-22 at the Manhattan Beach Marriott.
This year’s convention was marked by a greater feeling of strength and revival than in years past, a sense that people in general are waking up to the importance of unions and the role they play in keeping the U.S. economy vibrant.
As I have said before, unions, like the mythological phoenix, are rising again as union membership increases across the country and awareness grows that without unions, ordinary working people have no voice, are paid less, are treated worse and have fewer benefits than those who are unionized.
“United we bargain, divided we beg” is an old union organizing slogan just as relevant now as it was in the days of the Robber Barons like Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller.
The issue of insurgent unions, as well as attacks on public education and on teachers in general, was at the forefront of the remarks made by Torlakson, who pointed out that the very concept of public education is under attack by groups in the pay of millionaires and billionaires — the “de-formers,” as he called them.
“Teachers are not the problem, they are the solution!” he said, and went on to point out that teachers and their supporters are fighting back and winning.
Saying it is time to stop “teacher bashing,” he said it was time for people to realize that teachers are a “dream team” because “they help students achieve their dreams.” He added that he is “more optimistic now than in the past” for education and for organized labor as a whole.
Torlakson was followed by Yee, who pointed out that California being 46th in spending per student is “unacceptable” when our state is the seventh-largest economy in the world.
“Public education is the great equalizer,” she said, referring to the opportunities public education gave to her as the child of a hard-working but poor immigrant family. “Each child should have the chance to unleash their full potential.”
Yee reminded the audience of what teachers know very well, that no “single size fits all” when it comes to measuring student success. She also addressed a growing problem: That in more and more urban areas, teachers cannot afford to buy homes in the cities in which they are employed, an issue that was taken up in one of the convention workshops.
Another focus of the convention was the success the CFT and the rest of the labor movement are having when it comes to organizing workers.
A recent coup by the CFT came last year when 750 faculty members at West Valley-Mission Community College in Saratoga voted to unionize. Feeling a lack of respect by their district’s administration, as well as the fact that they have not had a raise in 12 years, these teachers joined the CFT, as did the Ecole Bilingue de Berkeley, “the largest bilingual school in the East Bay.”
But these are far from the only recent union victories.
Only last month, Silicon Valley shuttle bus drivers voted to join the Teamsters union. At Temple University in Philadelphia, adjunct professors voted late last year to join the American Federation of Teachers.
In Santa Maria, meanwhile, our own Part-Time Faculty Association of Allan Hancock College has signed up 261 new members since the latter part of 2013.
Along with success in organizing has come a new sense of militancy. Bloomberg.com reports that “Unions Are Poised For A Comeback” as income inequality continues to grow and workers’ wages continue to stagnate. Oil field workers have walked off the job demanding higher wages. Dock workers have gone on strike.
Workers are aware that since 2009, management compensation has grown 50 percent faster than that of union workers; nonunion workers are left even farther behind.
“For the first time in a generation,” Bloomberg reports, “the labor movement is aligned with millions of Americans who don’t belong to a union but feel marginalized.”
A Harvard University professor of sociology notes, “This is a political opportunity for organized labor.”
All of this is not lost on the delegates to the CFT convention.
“The fight is more than just education — it is a fight for a fair and just society,” CFT secretary-treasurer Jeff Freitas said.
His words were echoed by CFT president Josh Pechtalt, who told the delegates that while last year saw some major successes scored by both the CFT and organized labor, the battle is ongoing. The passage of Proposition 30 in 2012 has brought $13 billion into California public education. Class sizes are being reduced and more students are now enrolled in the state’s community college system.
“But we must keep up our fight against anti-teacher rhetoric,” he said.
The 2015 CFT convention was a rousing success. Delegates left with a feeling of empowerment, and the realization that the tide is turning in their favor.
As Saul Alinsky said long ago, power flows from two poles: From those who have money and those who have people. Unions have people, and in the end, the people always win out.
Mark James Miller, President, Part-Time Faculty Association of Allan Hancock College, CFT Local 6185, Santa Maria, CA