A big change in the S.F. teachers union
Matt Bello, a high school teacher and activist in United Educators of San Francisco, analyzes the unexpected outcome of elections for the union’s top offices.
A NEW era is coming to United Educators of San Francisco (UESF), the teachers union in the San Francisco public schools.
In a surprise upset, Dennis Kelly, the longtime president of the union and leader of the Progressive Leadership Caucus (PLC), was narrowly defeated by Lita Blanc of the reform caucus Educators for a Democratic Union (EDU). The popular incumbent Vice President Susan Solomon of PLC kept her position.
In all, 14 of 16 EDU candidates won the positions they were running for. But EDU didn’t field enough candidates to win a majority of the 40 seats on the executive board. This outcome will force the two caucuses of the union that have often been at odds to share power.
Kelly, a San Francisco teacher and labor activist since the 1960s, had been president of the union since 2003. While some were impressed by his decades of advocacy and the moderate gains for teachers in an age of austerity, many others have been turned off by his aloof, backroom leadership style and lack of vision for a district and city in midst of extreme gentrification.
Most recently, he was criticized for accepting a gag order imposed by a mediator duringcontract negotiations in late 2014–which kept members in the dark about what was happening and crippled attempts to build a campaign for a better contract.
Kelly is also a leader in the National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT), and their state affiliates in California. He is currently a vice president of the AFT and a member of AFT President Randi Weingarten’s Progressive Caucus–a formation that has led the union in a direction that many teacher activists are critical of, including collaboration with corporate school “reform.”
Kelly has come under fire for other issues, as well. Prominent Palestinian activist Ali Abunimah recently criticized him, Weingarten and other AFT leaders for strengthening the union’s ties with apartheid Israel–including traveling to Israel earlier this year on a junket arranged by the liberal Zionist lobbying organization J Street–and undermining the Palestinian boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign.
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KELLY AND the Progressive Leadership Caucus barely ran a campaign for the internal election, confident that they would be re-elected after the last contract achieved one of the largest raises for teachers in the state. The 12 percent raise over three years in San Francisco seems to stand out compared to pay increases for teachers elsewhere. But it falls far short of the extreme cost-of-living increases in the city, and overall wages remain below many neighboring suburban districts.
The union of approximately 6,200 members has seen 4,000 members leave the San Francisco Unified School District in the last 12 years. This hemorrhaging of membership is clearly tied to the extreme gentrification of San Francisco, but also to burdensome dependent health care costs, lack of secondary class size caps and an expanding program of standardized testing and top-down directives. None of these were addressed in the contract struggle.
In response to the enormous pressures on San Francisco educators and to the union leadership’s inability to address the situation, the EDU caucus organized a small grassroots campaign during the pre-election period, by organizing small events at many schools, distributing leaflets to dozens of district schools and facilities, and developing a large base on Facebook. EDU also had the public support of the prominent and well-respected San Francisco-based grassroots professional development organization Teachers 4 Social Justice.
All of these factors, along with EDU’s reputation as opponents of the recent contract settlement and critics of standardized testing, raised its candidates’ popularity.
Low voter turnout, which traditionally benefits incumbents, may have helped EDU this time. An archaic and confusing voting process not based at worksites, along with general membership apathy, resulted in only 13 percent of union members voting in the election–though the turnout was still approximately 100 votes higher than in the last election three years ago. The offer by EDU members to collect ballots from teachers and drive them across the city to union offices may have been the small nudge they needed to win.
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EDU WAS formed in 2007 when former PLC members and social justice-oriented educators, upset with the ballot initiative Prop A that gave significant raises to teachers and all but ignored the raises for paraprofessionals, decided to form their own caucus. The active membership of the caucus has fluctuated considerably since then, but leading members of EDU, who have decades of experience in leftist groups and labor activism, weathered many challenges.
While EDU is the home of many great activists educators in San Francisco, it has struggled to develop a collective orientation since the waning of the movement against budget cuts in California in 2009. It has also historically been challenged with developing a strategy beyond an orientation on winning internal union elections.
And when EDU members have won official positions in the union, it’s been difficult for the caucus to hold them accountable. In the previous election, when its candidates won both the secretary and vice president of substitutes positions, the caucus didn’t challenge the local secretary when she, as the sole EDUer on Dennis Kelly’s appointed contract bargaining team, decided to remain obedient to Kelly’s directive to respect the controversial gag order on negotiations. EDU will have to learn from this mistake and ensure that members stay true to democratic principles.
There is also debate in EDU on many other questions, including how and when to strike. But there is agreement that striking is working people’s most powerful weapon and shouldn’t be used as an empty-threat bargaining chip, as was often the case under Dennis Kelly. The EDU leaders now in office will undoubtedly be oriented toward organizing to strike if necessary and asking the rank and file to make the decision when the time comes.
Incoming President Lita Blanc is known as a dedicated and principled unionist. She has been a teacher in San Francisco since 1986 and is a longstanding advocate for students and public education, as both an educator and a parent.
Blanc campaigned on many of the pillars of what is often called social movement unionism–such as union democracy and stronger links to the community. She has been active in linking San Francisco’s dissident rank-and-filers with the national reform caucus network United Caucuses of Rank and File Educators (UCORE), which includes militant educators in Seattle, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York City, St. Paul, North Carolina and elsewhere.
Blanc and the EDU will face considerable obstacles. For one thing, the PLC still holds prominent elected positions, including a majority on the executive board. But the caucus has also been the political home of many dedicated unionists. It will be of upmost importance to acknowledge this and find a way to ensure that members from both EDU and PLC can work together productively.
Plus, it will also be crucial for the leadership to reach out beyond the caucuses and help organize and activate a very disconnected membership.
Many members were turned off by Dennis Kelly’s top-down approach to running the union. But there is no clear and sustainable formula for member engagement, as many progressive unionists have learned recently even after taking office. This will be the task of UESF members in a new era that will undoubtedly produce a more open, empowering culture in the union: to find ways to organize and empower members at each school site.
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THE UNION now has three years before the new contract expires. But the first battle will come much sooner, in the form of a contract reopener for a higher raise. The struggle to organize, educate and empower membership begins now.
Now the leadership of EDU must develop a plan to transform UESF into a more empowered, member-driven and militant union. While its top priorities of building links with parents, addressing the over-testing of SFUSD students and fighting for affordable housing are great, San Francisco teachers have plenty to learn from teachers unions that EDU is already networked with via UCORE, in Los Angeles, Chicago, St. Paul, Portland and Seattle.
Additionally, the outgoing leadership has done important work building ties with many progressive groups across the city. The union should continue its relationship with the Close the Gap coalition, which has produced constructive ties to important student advocacy and community groups.
It is likely that the UESF’s current focus on electoral politics will be much less emphasized under Lita Blanc than it was under Dennis Kelly. Given the left-leaning nature of EDU, it will be interesting to see the union’s approach to progressive politics under a new leadership. There will undoubtedly be a push by leading members of EDU to support candidates who are independent of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party in San Francisco. But it remains unclear what position the EDU leadership will take on prioritizing labor’s need to break from the Democratic Party.
The change in union leadership will open up opportunities for activist educators in San Francisco. It will be up to EDU members and other rank-and-file activists to hold EDU to the principles of union democracy and member empowerment. All educators who are looking to fight for the union, the school district and the city that our students, families and communities deserve should play a part in the struggles to come.