Changing Our Union, Not Just Our Leaders

Changing Our Union, Not Just Our Leaders: Proposals for the UESF election

It’s a new year for educators in San Francisco as the second semester starts, and with the contract now officially ratified by 78% of the UESF membership, the UESF leadership is in full campaign mode on all the wonderful changes that came as a result of a contract won by emphasizing work at the bargaining table and avoiding a strike.

Let’s take a look at our accomplishments.

Paraprofessionals are still part of the working poor in San Francisco and have six-hour part-time jobs. Security has gone from unofficially having an hour of work a day taken from them to now ‘officially’ giving it up for good. Elementary teachers won 2.5 hours of prep time a week, but will feel no less exhausted by being the only teacher responsible for educating up to 32 children for 6 hours per day every day. And in terms of increases in pay and bridging the ‘affordability gap’ in San Francisco, teachers received a one-time several-hundred dollar 2% retroactive pay increase from July. With a median rent of $3350 PER MONTH in yuppie-infested San Francisco, our much lauded pay increase does not even come close to bridging the affordability gap . As for classified, their retroactive paycheck of $150 will barely pay their cable and cell phone bill for a month. Our pay increase is best described as a cost-of-living adjustment rather than a step towards easing financial hardships for educators (especially paras). At the same time, our contract made absolutely no progress on class size, the growing battery of standardized tests we must administer, pension reform and the growing economic burden of health care (which will chew up much of the meager economic gains made in this contract).

Even more ridiculous than the talk of what a great contract we won has been the absurd claim that all this was accomplished because of the great organizing our union did. C’mon folks, let’s get real. We had a few poorly attended rallies in front of the Board of Education (300-400 each). We got some petitions signed by parents that never went anywhere. We wore some T-shirts at work once a week. A few of our sites started ‘work-to-rule’ in the last month of the contract fight. But the most significant collective action we took was in August, massing over 2000 members to vote “Yes” to hold a strike vote and then collecting over 3000 signatures to affirm that support for a final strike vote authorization. But this final strike vote never happened and our union leaders clearly never intended to use the strike as our collective weapon in this fight. This weak contract was not a result of our collective action, but our collective inactivity.

If we expect things to change in our union, we have to take on the misconception that our union’s strength originates from the actions of the bureaucracy at the top rather than the mass action of the rank-and-file. The strike weapon must be put at the center of our organizing and our union needs to be structured so that it is singularly focused on organizing members to take control of their work sites by collectively withholding our work. This is what it means to move from a ‘service model’ of unionism (which we currently have) to an ‘organizing model’ which we don’t have and which we must build.

UESF is now entering its election period, which will culminate in May and determine both the officers (including President and Vice-President) and the Executive Board (comprised of rank-and-file members). For those of us critical of the current leadership, this will be seen as a perfect opportunity to change our union by changing our leadership. The authors of this article welcome a change in leadership, but we insist that if we change the leadership of our union without making significant changes in the structure and function of our union, we will end up trading one brand of “service model” for another. We can switch out a moderate leadership for a more radical one, but if there is no real change in how our union operates at its base, we will see “reform without change.” It is worth remembering that the current leadership of UESF came to power years ago with the promise of making the very change that many of see as necessary today. We are likely to travel this same road unless the changes we propose run much deeper than just changing the names at the top.

To that end, during this election season, we offer some proposals that we believe will begin the process of building a bottom-up union that puts action and the use of the strike at its center. These proposals seek to break-up the bureaucratic control that exists throughout our union, create a leadership that is more directly accountable to the membership, further democratize our union structures, remove fetters from membership participation and action and finally make a promise to take decisive action both during contract struggles and outside of the contract cycle in order to defend our interests and the interests of other workers.

1) Disaffiliate from NEA, AFT, CTA and CFT

Approximately 70% of our monthly dues goes to paying for our membership to these national and state-wide bodies. Far from building a stronger national or statewide union and spreading struggle across the country, the primary function of these bodies has been to prioritize funding and voting for the Democratic Party in the misguided belief that the Democratic party supports public education. This not only doesn’t help us, it actually hurts us. The Democratic Party (like the Republican Party) has proven itself to be pro-charter, pro-standardized testing, anti-teacher, anti-union and an enemy of workers across the country. We need to stop. But more than this, both CTA and CFT largely played the role of helping our local leadership avoid going on strike during this contract round and helped them to exert bureaucratic control of our union from above rather than spreading struggle from below. It is worth asking when is the last time either of these bodies led a statewide or nationwide strike over any of the MANY attacks on public education over the last several decades. Far from initiating struggle, more often than not they have served to tamp it down. This money is much better put to building a strike fund.

2) All union officers must work part-time at a work-site.
3) Officer income based on an average of ALL members (both certificated/teachers and classified/paraprofessionals)

The salary of our current officers is not published anywhere for members to review. The president’s current salary is set at the highest teacher’s scale salary plus 50% – $123,000 by the previous contract. President and vice-president are also on full time release. They no longer work as educators during their term. This means our current president hasn’t been in the classroom in over a decade. A union leadership must stay connected to the working conditions of the membership in order to maintain the same interests as the members they serve. When leadership makes significantly more money and no longer experiences what it’s like to be at a worksite talking to members every day and doing the work, they become disconnected from the membership they serve. The best intentioned leaders will develop interests that are distinct, or even diverge from their membership under these conditions. Our leadership must not spend more time with district bureaucrats, lawyers and administration than they do with other union members in the schools. We are calling for a salary that is the average salary of all our members, certificated and classified. We are also calling for a leadership that works part-time in the schools. We know some folks will say the responsibilities of an urban school district union leader can’t possibly be fulfilled on a part time basis. And this is true if you’re building a union that acts in place of the membership, through negotiation and politicking. This conception is rooted in a “service model” of unionism. We need a different model that has one goal – to build a combative, striking union where members act for themselves. This kind of union needs many, many more members involved in the work of the union. We are not looking for a leadership that does the organizing for us. We believe we must build a union that expects rank-and-file members to be the organizers and the decision makers driving the union.

4) Highest decision making body becomes Assembly not Executive Board, i.e. Resolutions no longer require ‘vetting’ at Executive Board.
5) ALL members vote at monthly Assemblies (not just delegates)
6) Divisional Heads elected yearly (and must be rank-and-file member).
7) Bargaining team elected not appointed.
8) Dispense with running meetings using Robert’s Rules.
9) Online voting (or voting at work sites) rather than mail-ballot system.

These changes seek to further democratize our union through structures that could involve all members (like the monthly Assembly) and allow them to control their own union rather than experience the bureaucratic circus of top-down control we currently have. This will require that any member be allowed to attend and vote at an assembly. The executive board’s role must shift as well. Our board should focus on coordinating the action of the widest possible segment of our membership and making sure decisions reached at Assembly are acted on. The goal should be to transform our Assemblies from monthly sideshows attended by, at best, seventy five people to monthly membership meetings that are attended by hundreds if not thousands.

Our union has monthly divisional meetings that could be potentially useful sites of organizing. Currently, the leaders of those divisional meetings are appointed and they are not always run by rank-and-file members. They should be.

Finally, Robert’s Rules is held up as a ‘tome’ of democracy within unions while in reality its rules are inscrutably written and generally used to control meetings by an enlightened ‘priesthood’ who know them. The Occupy movement was able to create more democratic structures in one week than has ever been realized through Robert’s Rules. Get rid of it, we can figure out a better way together.

#10 All resources put to a strike fund not to sustaining bureaucracy.
#11 End the COPE fund.

These proposals emphasize responding to contract violations by organizing actions at site and less on the grievance process and back-door dealing.

Despite the talk about site organizing and Union Building Committee (UBC) trainings, our union relies on the top most leadership to make decisions and set priorities. Like other unions, our leadership’s orientation is on having a staff of folks to file grievances and lawsuits when contract rights are violated. During contract campaigns members are encouraged to be visible at their sites, wear t-shirts, show up to rallies. UBCs have rights to meet with administration, to share site based decision making powers. But that’s about where it stops. Our union needs to be transformed from a service based union to an organizing based union. When we talk about organizing, we have to ask the question, “Organizing for what?” The answer to this question is that our union’s focus should not be on legal contracts and grievance hearings, but on making sure each and every site is ready to strike. A union that is ready to strike is ready to take work place based action AT ANY TIME to enforce the contract, not file a grievance and wait months to have a series of hearings with the district that rarely solve the problems or hold the district accountable.

The current leadership not only relies on a legal process to solve site based problems, but looks to elections and politicians to solve the larger problems in our district, our city and in public education. Unless members opt out, they have dues deducted monthly for a COPE committee that is focused on electoral politics and only organizes members to get out the vote. The recent campaign to re-elect Tom Torlakson was a perfect example. In the midst of our contract fight, when every site should have had as its number one priority preparing to strike for a decent contract, the efforts, e-mails and neighborhood walks were GOTV efforts for the State Superintendent of Education. This is not only a short term mistake – our union did not prepare for a strike and we did not win significant gains in this contract – but a long term one as well.

#12 A single membership meeting required to go on strike

We need to move to becoming a class-struggle union and not just giving lip service to social justice while we do nothing to stop the constant attacks made by politicians on education and on other sections of the working class. Additionally this means we have to have leadership that is prepared to mobilize the members for striking not just during a contract but for taking direct action in the months and years between the contract.

What does that mean? That means if a single member is served a pink-slip in the spring, we should prepare to strike. If a single school is threatened with school closure, reconstitution, or some ridiculous “turn-around” model, we should be prepared to occupy our schools and strike. If sisters and brothers in other unions in San Francisco, California, or other parts of the country go out and call for solidarity, we should join them (not just in rallies but in actions that shut down the schools). This is the real meaning of solidarity (not being an affiliate member of NEA or CTA and doing nothing).

Let’s be clear, each of these actions will be howled at as illegal violations of labor law, especially joining solidarity strikes. But fighting for public education and for anything worth winning for people, has never been legal; that’s just how capitalism is constructed. You have always had to break the law to get justice. We are just so out of practice that we have forgotten that, even though we teach it daily in our classes.

The UESF election cycle is starting and the reform caucus, Educators for a Democratic Union has begun hosting a series of meetings to determine both a set of candidates and a unified political platform. The twelve proposals we submit here are not EDU’s positions. We believe some members of EDU will welcome some and balk at others. But the twelve proposed changes are only the beginning of the kind of housecleaning we need to do in our union and we believe our members can come up with many more changes. For us, these proposals represent the kinds of changes that we think will be necessary to begin to free our union from the confines of bureaucratic control and to create structures that will make our union truly more member run, putting class struggle back at the center of our union. We think the changes that must happen go well beyond changing the names of the people at the top. That is, in part, the inspiration of the proposals we make here.

But the two of us are also socialists who believe that for real social justice to be achieved there will need to be a revolution in this country and ultimately the world. We also believe the working class is capable of making that change if it takes collective action. In reality, most workers don’t believe this. They neither identify as a member of a working class, nor believe that our class is capable of transforming the world by eradicating capitalism and running the world via workers’ democratic control across the globe. To most this seems a pipedream, and given our decades of retreat and defeat, this attitude is entirely understandable. But this does not change the fact that capitalism is on a collision course to destroy life as we know it on this planet through war and environmental destruction and that it currently immiserate billions, while a few million live in obscene opulence. Marxists say this situation can only be overturned through the “self-activity” of the working class. These proposals for our union are animated by a similar belief in this possibility.

As educators we are faced daily with both the impossibility of our own situation of most all our students. We cannot educate in a way that is best for them and they are not free to realize their dreams in the society we are both bound to under capitalism. It is time to face the fact that the world we want to create, that our students need us to create, cannot be put off for a future time when they are adults (and we are retired), but must be fought for now. These proposals are motivated by our vision for a stronger union that requires more of all of us now, with the aim of achieving much greater goals than just a seat at the table for workers and students. We are not satisfied with that. We want the whole dining room. The kitchen. We want the house.

Adrienne Johnstone is a fifth and sixth grade math & science teacher at SF Community School and Executive Board Member for United Educators of San Francisco (UESF).

Andy Libson is a high school science teacher at Mission High School and member of UESF ( Both are members of the reform caucus Educators for a Democratic Union (EDU).

Adrienne Johnstone is a fifth and sixth grade math & science teacher at SF Community School and Executive Board Member for United Educators of San Francisco (UESF).  Andy Libson is a high school science teacher at Mission High School and member of UESF ( Both are members of the reform caucus Educators for a Democratic Union (EDU).