More Awards, Special Edition Convention 2018

Legislators of the Year: Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher and Connie Leyva

Community College Council President Jim Mahler first met Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher (D-San Diego) when she worked in Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante’s office. She supported labor then, and she supports it now, he said, advocating for International Workers’ Day and passing paid sick leave for all workers.

“She’s been our friend, strong ally and go-to person,” Mahler said when introducing Fletcher, one of the women to win this year’s Legislator of the Year Award.20180325CFTConv0176 sm

Gonzalez Fletcher began her speech by noting it was the 107th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, where 146 garment workers died from fire, smoke inhalation or jumping to their deaths since owners had locked the doors to stop workers from taking breaks. These deaths, which sparked laws to protect workers’ safety, were caused by corporate greed Gonzalez Fletcher said, and though we may not be locking garment workers inside factories, we still need to guard against corporations putting profits above workers’ rights.

“The work you do today is no less important than it was 100 years ago,” she said. “We need to fight back against corporate interests and for every worker who has lost their life or livelihood.”

CFT President Joshua Pechthalt introduced state Senator Connie Leyva (D-Chino), the other winner of the award. Pechthalt has a personal connection to Leyva – their daughters both play college softball – and when he has an issue related to labor, he texts her, and she always gets back to him, he said.20180325CFTConv0193 sm

“There’s no better place to be on a Sunday morning than in a house of labor,” Leyva told the attendees. “I love stirring it up a little bit.”

Leyva said she wants to be the legislator who negotiates for defined benefit pensions and contracts, and that she cares about the issues CFT members care about. She mentioned how inspired she is by the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, who have been advocating for gun control after a mass shooting at their school.

“I appreciate all of you and what you do educating the young people who are going to change the world that we screwed up,” she said.

 

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Women in Education Award: Sandra Larsen, Petaluma Federation

A woman’s place is in her union, Morgan Hill Federation of Teachers PresidentGemma Abels told attendees at the CFT Convention before introducing this year’s winner of the Women in Education Award, Sandra Larsen, president of the Petaluma Federation of Teachers, who led a successful strike last spring, the first in the union’s history.

“Sandra Larsen is a strong woman, a passionate unionist and a compassionate educator,” Abels said, telling the crowd that Larsen’s father was in the union for letter carriers in Richardson, Texas, where she grew up. “She taught home economics and science and life skills at Petaluma Junior High, which we all know means she is a saint.”

Larsen went from treasurer to chief negotiator to president of her union, Abels said, and her mobilization of the members ended in a 3.5 percent raise. Larsen also fought for them in the courts, filing two unfair labor practices.

Larsen, who had just turned 60, said she was raised in the South to be sweet –– but she wanted more respect and better pay for her members, so she spoke up.

“Sometimes you need to stand up and step out of your comfort zone and do what’s right,” she said. “CFT came in right away and helped us set small goals, like getting 50 people to a school board meeting and our strength grew.”

The union built support in the community, Larson said, so when they asked parents for help – to make calls or show up to meetings – they would do it.

“When it became clear it was time to call a one-day strike, 95 percent of members participated,” Larson said. “If a 60-year old woman born in Richardson, Texas, can do it, anyone can.”

 

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Raoul Teilhet Award: Ray Gaer, ABC Federation

Becoming president of the ABC Federation of Teachers after the legendary Laura Rico – known for leading a successful eight-day strike in 1993 and serving as a vice president of the CFT, the AFT and the AFL-CIO simultaneously – meant people had some pretty high expectations of him, said Ray Gaer, current president.

“Everybody said Laura Rico left huge shoes to fill,” Gaer said. “How do you fill them as one person? You can’t – it takes a team.”

Gaer, who was being honored with the Raoul Teilhet “Educate, Agitate, Organize” Award , compared himself to an orchestra leader who needs good players – and singled out leaders Ruben Mancillas and Tanya Golden.

A sign hangs on the back of his door, Gaer said, so people see it when they’re leaving his office. It says “What have you done for members today?” That’s what drives him, Gaer said. One thing he wants to do is let members know what the union is up to.

“Communication is that secret sauce for ABC,” said Gaer, who says they have learned from the fliers and newsletters of their retiree chapter. “Communication is where it’s at. I tell everyone to talk to other people and tell them what we’re doing to help their lives. Say something positive about the union – they’re not hearing it on their TVs.”

QUICK TAKES

Communications Awards: About two dozen local unions took home awards for their explemary communication efforts in 2017.

Organizing and Political Awards: Numerous locals won awards for their political advocacy and for significant increases in membership.

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Ben Rust Award: Dennis Kelly, United Educators of San Francisco

United Educators of San Francisco Executive Vice President Susan Solomon started her speech at the Ben Rust Award luncheon by talking about some of the things that were happening 50 years ago – the Vietnam War dragging on and Martin Luther King getting assassinated while supporting striking garbage workers.

Solomon said she was doing what Dennis Kelly, the recipient of this year’s Ben Rust Award, the union’s highest honor, often did – giving some political or literary context. The reason Solomon focused on the number 50? It was that many years ago when Kelly, former AFT and CFT Vice President and former president of United Educators of San Francisco, joined the CFT, half of the union’s life.

“Fifty years is a long time to do anything,” Solomon said. “And for all of those years Dennis has been a union activist, an advocate and a true union brother and leader.”

In 1971, Kelly and UESF’s first president, Joan-Marie Shelley, were sworn in on the San Francisco Labor Council, which Solomon said “must have been a hell of a year for the Labor Council.” She noted some of the many awards and accolades Kelly and his wife Hene had won over the years, including the Labor Council’s Man and Woman of the Year.

Kelly has done so much for the union, Solomon said, such as creating the political director position and increasing respect for paraeducators. Since he has been involved, UESF has been on an upward trajectory of improved salaries and benefits, Solomon said. She also called him a strict boss.

“In the office he would not allow us to have more than three coffee cups on our desk,” she said. “When the cupboard was bare, he made it his mission to walk around and collect dirty coffee cups.”

Asking people who worked with Kelly to describe him, Solomon said they used words like “forceful,” “principled,” “knowledgeable,” “articulate,” “loyal,” and “supportive.”

Kelly introduced his family and UESF colleagues at his table, saying he was the 46th person to get the Ben Rust Award and that “in these times, it’s important to remember that something comes after 45” in reference to Donald Trump, the 45th president.

Reminding people that there’s no such thing as a friendly amendment, Kelly, the CFT parliamentarian for 33 years, talked about some things that happened at past CFT Conventions, such as a local president slugging a staff representative and being barricaded in their rooms in Fresno while people pounded on the door, trying to influence the vote. He asked his wife, Hene, to come up on stage, and kept bringing family members, including his triplet grandkids, and UESF members onstage with him until they surrounded him.

Kelly went over some history of the CFT, telling people about Joseph Perry Utter, who was inspired by Margaret Healy organizing the women teachers in Chicago to form the first local of the American Federation of Teachers. Utter got a charter and formed an AFT local in Vallejo, the first in California.

J.P. Utter organized 56 out of 57 teachers and principals, and they got the tax rate in the town raised to what the teachers thought it should be to support the schools. This inspired other teachers’ unions to form around the state, Kelly said, including his own, AFT Local 61. Then in 1919, Utter organized the leaders of the six locals in California, and they did what no one else in the country had considered. They formed the first AFT statewide federation, the California State Federation of Teachers.

Kelly also talked about Ben Rust. When teachers were being told they were professionals and didn’t need a union, Rust preached the message that teaching was work, and that teachers did need a union. That was something important to hear, Kelly said.

Utter and Rust did all this before collective bargaining or mandatory dues, Kelly said, adding that the next Utters and Rusts were in the room, ready to lead the way during a tough time for unions. Kelly said that he didn’t like the image of standing on the shoulders of giants, but preferred the idea of trailblazers, lighting the way. He mentioned that his family had been indentured servants, shackled to their jobs, and that unions are the way out for workers.

“I am honored to be among you, torchbearers and candle carriers, all,” he said. “Thank you all for the light you have shed and the paths you have illuminated.”

West Virginia teacher shares national movement with delegates

At the EC/TK-12 Council meeting on Friday night, President Rico Tamayo thanked West Virginia teacher Angela Johnson for staying up late to Skype with the council about the successful strike she was part of in her state. She brushed it off.

“We’re teachers,” she said. “We never sleep.”

Public schools in all 55 West Virginia counties closed for the nine-day teacher strike. West Virginia teachers are the 48th lowest paid in the country, and Johnson said they haven’t had a raise since 1990. On top of that, their benefit costs were about to go up.

“The cost of our health insurance was about to double,” she said. “For my family it was going to go from $320 a month to $650.”

Johnson said there was a huge rally on February 17, where they decided to have a rolling walkout (the state doesn’t have collective bargaining and walkouts are illegal), with five counties going out. By the time the state filed injunctions, another five counties would walk out.

“The United Mine Workers of America stood with us in solidarity,” Johnson said. “I was jumping up and down and cheering with 10,000 teachers in the pouring rain.”

The state did nothing for a couple of days, then they met with union leaders and offered a 2 percent raise and a task force to study benefits. Teachers didn’t accept.

“That’s not what we asked for,” Johnson said. “We asked for a 5 percent raise for all public employees and to fix our health insurance.”

So the teachers stayed out.

“All we have is ourselves and our voices and we made ourselves heard,” Johnson said. “We’re loud and proud and we stood our ground. It was a David versus Goliath, and the underdog won in this situation.”

Johnson said the teachers made sure to do lots of informational picketing so that people would know how bad their situation was. In a deep red state, she said political parties didn’t seem to matter. Cooks, secretaries, bus drivers, and instructional aides – everyone who worked at a school turned up, Johnson says, and she knows that some of them voted for Donald Trump.

“They obviously didn’t know who they were messing with,” Johnson said. “If you’ve ever hung out with elementary teachers, they’re not the most cutting edge crowd, but everyday working people organized and stood up for what we believed in. We didn’t want the public to think we were greedy or just griping, but you can’t take our money away and expect nothing to happen.”

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March for our Lives: Delegates join student-led protest in Orange County

Through speeches, chants and signs, the crowd of thousands at the March for Our Lives in Santa Ana made it clear what they wanted: common-sense gun control.

At the rally organized in response to the shootings that killed 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, students, teachers, and community members, along with Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, spoke to the crowd, talking about people they loved who had been shot, how they didn’t want to be afraid to go to school, and how the United States has more than 90 gun murders a day.

Facebook Pro Gallery: Delegates join March for Our Lives

Many got emotional as they talked about losing a family member or friend to gun violence. Several people spoke about a 2011 shooting at a hair salon in Seal Beach where nine people were killed, the deadliest shooting in Orange County’s history. Gordon Gallego, wearing a t-shirt that read, “Thoughts and prayers are not enough,” remembers hiding in the bathroom that day and seeing the blood seep under the door. Every day he thinks about his co-workers who were killed, he said.

AJ Frazier, a Marine before becoming a security aide with San Francisco Unified, said he would never want to carry a gun at a school. Frazier, a member of United Educators of San Francisco, spoke about his only son who had been shot in the head seven times sitting in his car.

“I never knew the man my son was meant to be,” he said “No one should ever have to go to the police department to identify their only child.”

Another CFT member, Kimberly Claytor from Newport Mesa Federation of Teachers, talked about how glad she is to see young people like her students leading. Like Frazier, Claytor has personal experience with gun violence. Her son committed suicide with a firearm, something that more than 20,000 people a year do.

Newsom, who the CFT has endorsed in his run for governor, said hearing from young people determined to change things was refreshing.

“This is an antidote to the cynicism and fear for what’s not happening in Washington,” he said. “You have a voice – you are not bystanders in this world.”

After a shooting at an elementary school in Stockton in 1989, which killed five children and wounded 30 teachers and students, California enacted a ban on assault weapons – and that made a big difference, Newsom said.

“The gun murder rate dropped 67 percent,” he said. “That ain’t fake news, folks, those are facts. Gun control saves lives.”

After the rally, about 5,000 people marched around Centennial Park. Scott Lee, a librarian and president of the Antelope Valley College Federation of Teachers, said it was important to show up.

“I think some of the ideas they are coming out with about arming teachers are just idiotic,” he said. “There’s this kind of ridiculousness that arming everyone is the way to solve the problem.”

Lee said he’s never had gun violence at his workplace, but there was a shooting at the Sacramento Public Library that killed two people in the early 1990s. When he worked there years later, people still talked about it, he said, and remembered the sound of gunfire.

Some signs at the march read, “Actually, guns do kill people,” “Go get ‘em, kids” “I refuse to play dead,” “The only gun I want in my classroom is a hot glue gun.”

Tracey Iglehart with the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, agrees with those sentiments. As a teacher and a union member, she needed to be at the march, she said.

“If the goal of public education – and I believe it is – is to inform citizenry to be able to participate in democracy, then this is a proud moment for teachers,” she said. “We’re doing it.”

Eric Montijo, the president of Oxnard Federation of Teachers and School Employees, was glad to see all the young people at the march and hopes they will make a difference in the next election. Belinda Lum, a sociology teacher at Sacramento City College, wanted to march to support the young people.  

“It’s important to stand in solidarity with youth who are taking the lead on something that has been a problem for decades,” she said.

Maria Recinos, a retired bus driver with the Orange Unified School district came to the park with her kids and grandkids. She’s marching for them, she said.

“Because first is the safety of every child in this world,” she said. “They need to go to school, and the parents think it’s safe. I really hope this is the beginning of a change and this world becomes a better place for the kids.”

Kimberly King, Peralta Federation of Teacher’s diversity chair and a psychology and ethnic studies teacher at Oakland’s Laney College, also feels hopeful.

“I’m so impressed and honored to be here,” she said. “I feel like this might be what the civil rights movement was like. These young people are standing up to the politicians saying you have our thoughts and prayers. They’re seeing right though that.”

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Tony Thurmond: Delegates support CFT-endorsed candidate for state superintendent

A couple of days after his speech at the CFT Convention in Sacramento last year, Assemblymember Tony Thurmond (D- Richmond) announced his candidacy for state superintendent of public instruction. He regrets not announcing at the Convention, Thurmond told delegates, who waved blue signs in his support.

“I gave the speech that launched my candidacy to a bunch of administrators,” Thurmond said. “Nothing against administrators, but they ain’t you.”

Before Thurmond spoke, El Camino Classified Employees President Luukia Smith told delegates that she considered it a “rainbow and unicorn” day when someone asked her what she did at El Camino College rather than what she taught.

Thurmond said in his speech that she had just taught him to do that. He also mentioned the president of the Berkeley Council of Classified Employees, Paula Phillips, and Elaine Merriweather, treasurer of United Educators of San Francisco, and all their support for him over the years before he became a state legislator and served on the Richmond City Council and the West Contra Costa Unified School Board.

Thurmond said they had known him so long, they knew all his jokes – like that his family ate so much government cheese growing up, that he thought USDA was a brand name.

He constantly sees school support staff going beyond their job descriptions to look out for students. Thurmond mentioned, for example, a group of custodians who started a program to make sure that their school’s hungry kids – like Thurmond was – are getting fed. Thurmond said he volunteered with them – making the mistake of wearing a snazzy suit like the one he had on at the Convention – and was tired and sore that night.

“Every student was greeted with love and care and concern,” he said. “It takes such a diverse family of educators to support 6 million students in California. l am honored to be endorsed by you.”

Thurmond told the attendees about his father, a veteran who left his family, and about his mother from Panama who died of cancer when he was a kid. A cousin in Philadelphia took him and his younger brother in. She was a nurses’ aide and a strong union supporter, and Thurmond marched on picket lines with her as a youth. She insisted he and his brother and her sons got the best public education possible.

“When she got her community college degree, she was creating an expectation that higher education would matter – she was sending a message that the opportunity to get an education can change your life,” he said. “It changed my life, and it saved my life. I was raised by you and supported by you, and please hear my thank you.”

When he was asked to teach high school students, Thurmond said he chose to teach in a juvenile detention center, and he brought in an Apple computer to teach coding. Kids should not have to be incarcerated to learn coding, Thurmond said, who told the CFT that he was particularly proud of introducing a bill that would tax private prisons to fund preschool and after-school programs. He has also introduced bills for more affordable housing for teachers and classified staff and to close for-profit charter schools.

“When our president says the way to keep our students safe is to give educators guns, we need politicians with a backbone to say we need real gun control and mental health counseling and more psychologists, and more social workers and nurses,” Thurmond said to cheers from the audience.

The way to a better life is though education, Thurmond said, and as state superintendent, he wants to make sure everyone, including low-income students like he was, has the opportunity to get a great education.

“It makes a big difference,” he said. “Think how easily I could have ended up in a California state prison. Instead I ended up in the California State Assembly.”

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Erwin Chemerinsky: Constitutional scholar brings delegates to their feet

If you get a case on the Supreme Court, make your brief a shameless attempt to pander to Justice Anthony Kennedy, said UC Berkeley Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky, keynote speaker at the CFT Convention. Why? Because Kennedy has been in the majority 97 percent of cases this year, and 98 percent the year before.

Facebook Pro Gallery: Members in Motion

Chemerinsky brought up how the Senate, in an unprecedented move, refused to even hold hearings on Merrick Garland, the man President Obama nominated to the Supreme Court in 2016 after Justice Antonin Scalia died. Chemerinsky said Garland was a year ahead of him in law school, a brilliant man and a decent person.

Donald Trump appointed Neil Gorsuch, a conservative justice to the court, meaning there’s a 5-4 conservative majority, the same way there was with Scalia. Gorsuch was 46 years old when he was appointed, Chemerinsky pointed out, meaning he could potentially be on the bench until 2058. This is bad for labor, he said, particularly concerning Janus v. AFSCME, which would mean unions could no longer collect “fair share” fees from non-members who benefit from the union’s bargaining activities. A similar case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, went to the court in 2016. Chemerinsky said he read the transcript of the case and it was ever clearer to him what the outcome would be. After Scalia’s death, it resulted in a 4-4 split decision.

“The outcome of Janus rests on a single person – Neil Gorsuch,” Chemerinsky said. “He didn’t say a word at the oral arguments. I’m not a betting person, but I would wager all the dollars and pennies in my savings account that Gorsuch will join together with the conservative members of the court.”

This is just the first of many blows to public employees, Chemerinsky said, along with challenges to the National Labor Relations Board and the threat of gerrymandering, when a district is divided up so as to favor a political party.

“We all learned in civics class that voters are supposed to choose politicians,” he said. “But they’re choosing us.”

Chemerinsky also brought up Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, about a baker who declined to make a wedding cake for a same sex couple on religious grounds.

Chemerinsky cracked a joke, asking “Did Colorado get it right when it argued bakers can’t be choosers?” and then spoke about the serious implications of the case.

“If baking a cake is speech, then taking pictures is speech, and making floral arrangements is speech, and putting on makeup – isn’t any work a form of speech?” Chemerinsky asked, saying people could make an argument that discrimination was a form of speech. “This would create a loophole to every civil rights law ever adopted.”

He realized he was painting a bleak, depressing picture, the dean said near the end of his speech, and added he was more afraid for the country and what he believes in than any other time during his life. But he told Convention delegates what he tells his students.

“We really only have two choices – to give up or to fight harder,” he said. “That means we really only have one choice – we have to fight harder and better than we have before.”