Our history teaches us the power of organizing for collective action

By Joshua Pechthalt, CFT President

At this pivotal moment in our history, we can look back with pride while looking forward with a tempered sense of confidence. Knowing what our union has overcome in its first century, we will face the coming challenges and emerge a stronger union.

Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the CFT. Previous generations of educators won the right to due process and collective bargaining. They built the foundation that led to decent compensation, healthcare and retirement benefits, and much more.

The CFT’s activism runs deep. We were one of the first unions to oppose the Vietnam War and later the Iraq War.

The end of fair share will hurt, but it won’t be the end of the labor movement if we organize and incorporate the kind of fight-back educators are engaged in today — the same motivation that drove the founders of our proud state federation a century ago.

More recently, we led the effort to have the state budget adopted by a majority vote of the Legislature. Our union supported the Millionaires Tax, which ultimately became Proposition 30, and Proposition 55, and gave us a progressive tax measure that will generate an additional $6 billion annually for public education for a generation — a historic change that will improve the lives of millions of Californians.

But all American public sector unions face a crisis with the soon-to-be-decided Janus v. AFCSME lawsuit. Not only could this case erode the hard-fought gains of the past century, but some public sector unions may not survive, as we witnessed in Michigan and Wisconsin. If public sector unions are crippled, it will hurt the entire American labor movement. Let’s be clear: That is exactly the goal of the well-funded, far-right forces behind the Janus case.

In the Supreme Court ruling we will, in all likelihood, lose fair share for public sector unions, overturning 40 years of legal precedent established in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education.

The anti-union forces behind this lawsuit want to see public education dismantled, leading to more charter schools and vouchers. Beyond that, by damaging the labor movement, they hope to have less organized opposition to their plans to privatize healthcare, including Medicare, and shift Social Security from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution plan. These changes would be disastrous for most workers.

In spite of a Supreme Court ready to rule against us, educators from West Virginia to Kentucky to Puerto Rico — and red states in between — have been taking to the streets in unprecedented numbers. Linking the issues of inadequate pay and chronic underfunding, building solidarity with students, parents and workers, these educators are changing the public narrative about education and education unions.

In a recent poll, 68 percent of Americans agree that teachers are underpaid, two-thirds support education unions and three-quarters support our right to strike — even support among Republicans was strong. While some had concerns about the role of education unions, the responses were remarkable given the orchestrated teacher bashing of the last 30 years and the lowest overall rate of unionization since the end of World War II.

The actions of these educators remind us that consciousness changes when people mobilize. The modern labor movement was built through organizing and taking action, not simply through elections or lobbying.

The end of fair share will hurt, but it won’t be the end of the labor movement if we organize our members and incorporate the kind of fight-back educators are engaged in today — the same motivation that drove the founders of our proud state federation a century ago.