Local unions confront the post-election environment

Four leaders talk about union priorities in their districts

Since Donald Trump was elected president, it has become clear: It’s a new day for educators, their unions, students and communities. California Teacher asked the presidents of four local unions from different regions of the state to voice their concerns.

Britt Dowdy of the Newport-Mesa Federation of Teachers says, “The attacks on public education, unions, and the many other challenges we will face require us to get our boots on the ground, increase membership, and reach out to our communities. It’s a massive organizing opportunity.” In his largely conservative region of Orange County, Dowdy explains, “Our communities overwhelmingly send their children to public schools and support public education. We can focus on what’s going on inside our district to mobilize members and communities.”

Dowdy is concerned that repeal of the Affordable Health Care Act will drive up already escalating costs because fewer people will be in the insurance market, and that the district will shift those costs to employees.

Newport-Mesa is working on building a more collaborative relationship with administration. Dowdy believes this will increase member engagement and help convert fair share payers to full members.

Cathy Campbell, Berkeley Federation of Teachers, says there is a great deal of fear about changing immigration policies in Berkeley, one of many Bay Area sanctuary cities. Members have been participating in immigrant support actions and working to reassure students and their families that school is a safe place. (See page 4) “We will defend their rights under the law to have access to education,” says Campbell. The local will continue working to make Muslim and LGBTQ students feel welcome, too.

With support from a school board member, the union helped pass district policy to clearly direct staff how to respond should immigration agents appear on campus. Also, safety officers and other classified staff on the front lines — represented by the AFT classified local — are trained in response techniques.

Though Campbell worries about privatization threats, she sees strong community support for public education. The local continues its successful outreach to city businesses, with many posting BFT’s signature placards celebrating teachers.

“We will fight for our public schools, Constitution and democracy,” says Campbell. “They are the bedrock, where students learn American values and to be successful citizens.”

Clark Carter with the Galt Federation of Certificated and Classified Employees is focused on increasing membership and member commitment, with special outreach to classified employees in this northern Central Valley rural high school district.

The union plans to expand member communications by email and is starting a Facebook page. Carter says, “I will be spending more time at the school sites talking face-to-face with our teachers and staff.”

Because union-district relations have been strained, Carter worries that negotiations may be drawn out. It’s been difficult to agree even on small language changes. Plus, the local is in mediation over the layoff of a classified position and district attempts to shift those duties to counselors. 

To expand the union’s reach, the local is identifying members who are not in union leadership positions to meet with board members so that more educator issues can be heard. “Our members are simply the best in describing what the work really entails,” Carter concludes.

Ray Gaer at the ABC Federation of Teachers in southeastern Los Angeles County, calls these times “a bump in the road that we have to weather,” akin to surviving the Great Recession. He is confident we will get through this. Nonetheless, the local is updating member contact information, increasing social media efforts, and revving up political action.

Though monetary issues are on hold for the local, “We can strengthen contract language and work on important side projects like the PBIS,” he says of the Positive Behavior Intervention and Support program that helps students achieve social, emotional, and academic success.

The local benefits from a strong school site rep structure, and a collaborative relationship with administration. Leaders meet regularly with principals to review best practices, school climate, and leadership teams.

The ABC Federation also has the strong community ties needed to face increased competition from charter schools. The union and the board recently addressed the community together for the first time on how to spend district funding and the benefits of art and music. To allay community fears about immigration issues, the union is working with the district to set policies that will protect undocumented students at school.

By Mindy Pines, CFT Reporter