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Retirees stay true to the cause – keeping political, union skills sharp

AFT activists don’t stop being active when they retire. United Teachers Los Angeles retiree Jimmie Woods-Gray, for example, remains a whirlwind in the fight to stop the privatization of public education. UC-AFT Riverside’s Stephanie Kay, meanwhile, continues the daily fight for lecturers’ rights on University of California campuses.

When politics calls, Jimmie Woods-Gray answers. This election cycle, Woods-Gray threw herself unabashedly into Tony Thurmond’s hard-fought campaign for state superintendent of public instruction.

“I reached out to Tony the minute I learned he was the union candidate,” she said. “I knew he had to win Los Angeles County to get elected, and I know what you need to do to win here.”

I reached out to Tony the minute I learned he was the union candidate. I knew he had to win Los Angeles County to get elected, and I know what you need to do to win here.

Woods-Gray isn’t a high-priced campaign operative. The retired L.A. Unified teacher is a veteran leader of UTLA’s political action network, PACE, and packs a wallop when she volunteers for a cause or candidate.

“I am a union-trained activist,” she said. “The first thing we did was form a team to get Tony into churches so people could meet him and know where he stands.”

Every Sunday, Woods-Gray and the team escorted Thurmond in and out of as many as five churches. Their car caravan would work its way from Compton to the Inland Empire and back. The candidate spoke three times at L.A.’s famed First AME church during the primary and general campaigns.

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“Ministers sang his praises,” Woods-Gray said, adding with a playful take on their thundering, evangelical zeal in the pulpit, “This is the man we need!”

When the candidate wasn’t available, Woods-Gray stood in for him at meetings around Southern California. She also posted regularly on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, raised funds and phonebanked. Thurmond enjoyed a feature spot on the email slate she sends to a large circle of friends and family every election.

“This campaign was especially important for me,” she said. “It was about the future of my daughter, who is a teacher, and about the quality public schools my great-great-grandchildren will need.”

Woods-Gray jumped into politics as a young student in the early 1960s. She has since become a fixture in local campaigns, especially if an issue centers on labor or public education.

“I’ve licked a lot of stamps and envelopes.”

Retirement has meant more time for activism. Woods-Gray currently belongs to a half-dozen local Democratic Party clubs and an array of community groups. She also sits on the L.A. City Fire Commission.

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Stephanie Kay taught in the writing program at UC Riverside for 28 years. Kay also helped organize the UC-AFT Retiree Chapter, and moved to Oakland after she retired. 

Kay now serves as Retiree Chapter treasurer and recently began to volunteer for the UC-AFT Berkeley local. She draws on six years experience as a grievance steward at Riverside to tackle abuse of lecturers, the growing segment of UC faculty that is non-tenured.

Plain and simple, I like taking on the administration. I’ll never retire from that. They are powerful, and they abuse their power regularly.

Each campus has its issues and priorities, Kay said, but the grievance process spans the system. The big difference at Berkeley, she added, is sheer scale. In an academic year, for example, UCB has 1,500 lecturers with about a one-third turnover. Of 886 lecturers recently working, 413 were union members.

Kay said the university is infamous for firing lecturers in their fifth year, before their sixth year of service triggers the continuing appointment review process. “Lecturers are workers. The university likes to throw them out before they become permanent.”

Plain and simple. I like taking on the administration. I’ll never retire from that. They are powerful, and they abuse their power regularly.

Her work allowed Berkeley field reps to focus on the chapter’s fall membership drive. “Since the Janus decision, the union can’t afford to field the grievance team they once did, so I’m glad to volunteer. We retirees all have more time now.”

Labor education was a major component of the drive. “People don’t understand the power of unions, and that includes many young lecturers who don’t know what unions do.”

Kay holds a doctorate in 20th Century British and American Literature, and she has a flair for putting pen to paper when it’s time to defend working people.

“Writing grievances requires you to compose an argument for why the university is violating the memo of understanding and a union member’s due process. That takes some elegance.”

— By Steve Weingarten, CFT Reporter

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Students need more mental health support on campus, faculty too

By Mia L. McIver, President, UC-AFT

In a recent survey of UC-AFT faculty, members highlighted mental health as an issue that deserves our union’s attention and energy. UC students experiencing psychological challenges often seek support from lecturers and other contract faculty, who are sometimes the only faculty with whom they can develop a one-to-one relationship.

This isn’t surprising, since lecturers are hired specifically for our excellent teaching abilities. High-quality education at any level involves engaging with students as unique individuals who deserve our focused mentorship. Lecturers take great pride in lifting students up. When considered in the broader context of available resources and labor issues, however, the dynamics at play are more complex.

A September 2018 study from the World Health Organization finds that 35 percent of university students worldwide suffer from chronic mental illness, especially depression and anxiety. Within the United States, another recent study reports that diagnoses and treatments for these and other conditions among college students have been rising since 2009, as has students’ use of university mental health services. This translates into increased pressure on faculty to respond to and support students in crisis.

It’s a double bind: either take on unpaid care responsibilities for which you’re not trained and about which you receive no guidance, or risk losing your job because a student resents your setting reasonable boundaries.

UC-AFT faculty experience these trends on a regular basis as our students visit office hours to request disability accommodations, sidle up shyly after class to confess their difficulties, or pour their hearts into emails asking for help. Navigating a large and bureaucratic institution like a UC campus can be challenging for anyone; it’s even more so when you’re a first generation student trying to understand the unspoken rules of the place.

Because lecturers are much more likely than tenure-track faculty to be women, students tend to perceive us as more open, approachable, and nurturing. The UC, like most universities, is structured to shift the bulk of emotional labor away from tenure-track faculty and toward contract faculty. While lecturers are experts in our academic fields and highly accomplished in the art, science, and craft of pedagogy, we’re not trained therapists or counselors.

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Every term, we connect students with mental health resources, but counseling and psychological services offices on campus are chronically underfunded and understaffed. Newly-created mental wellness programs are being funded not by the state, but by charging students additional fees, which some students understandably object to. Yet Gov. Brown vetoed Senate Bill 968 (Pan, D-Sacramento) earlier this fall, which would have set minimum counselor staffing levels and required community colleges, CSUs, and UC campuses to survey students about their mental health needs.

In all this, the mental health needs of contract faculty are being left out. UCLA, for example, counts understanding, preventing, and treating depression as one of its ambitious Grand Challenges while ignoring that poor working conditions for lecturers contribute mightily to depression. Low salaries mean constant financial stress. Contingency and precarity generate chronic and debilitating anxiety. Losing a position that you thought would be renewed can be particularly devastating; the resulting depression landed one of our colleagues in the hospital recently.

One big fear among contract faculty is the risk of failing to be unconditionally open to student requests. Will students who are suffering harm themselves or others? We’re usually not in a position to make a sound assessment, but when 12.1 percent of college students report considering suicide and there have been two shootings by UC students in recent years, the question is unavoidable. Will setting sensible limits on your time and availability lead to poor student evaluations of your teaching, which are often the only factor considered in rehiring decisions? It’s a double bind: either take on unpaid care responsibilities for which you’re not trained and about which you receive no guidance, or risk losing your job because a student resents your setting reasonable boundaries.

Paradoxically, students are seeking more and more psychological support from the contract faculty whose working conditions profoundly restrict our ability to provide it. We can only be attentive and responsive to student needs when our institutions afford us similar support. As with so many other issues, student and faculty mental health are inextricably linked and must be addressed together in order to make meaningful improvements in mental health on UC campuses.

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Strike? Stand with L.A. teachers to win the schools students deserve

STORY UPDATE: After the factfinding report was released on December 18, UTLA announced it will go on strike January 10.

A Red-for-Ed wave rolled through downtown Los Angeles on December 15 as tens of thousands of members and supporters of United Teachers Los Angeles protested large class sizes, low pay, over-testing, a shortage of school nurses and other support staff, and the unregulated growth of charter schools.

UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl accused L.A. Unified’s pro-charter school board of “intentionally starving our schools while they are banking a historic budget surplus of nearly $2 billion.”

The money is there, the rainy day is now, and our kids deserve the investment. If we are forced to take dramatic action, it will be to save our schools.

The second largest education union in the nation staged the massive rally after 20 months of fruitless negotiations with Superintendent Austin Beutner. Unless LAUSD reaches an agreement with the union by year’s end, Caputo-Pearl told the overflow crowd in Grand Park, nearly 40,000 teachers will strike in mid-January.

“The money is there, the rainy day is now, and our kids deserve the investment,” he said. “If we are forced to take dramatic action, it will be to save our schools.”

Teacher demands include salary increases retroactive to July 2017, when the last contract expired; more nurses, counselors, social workers and librarians; less student testing; accountability for charter schools; and more community schools.

“More than 80 percent of LAUSD schools don’t have a full-time nurse - class sizes are among the largest in the state,” Caputo-Pearl proclaimed. 

Beutner, meanwhile, is working on a plan to break up the 900 LAUSD schools into 32 “portfolios” that regional headquarters would oversee, while slashing central office resources.

Details of the plan haven’t been released, but consulting firms working on the project are reportedly being paid by the Fund for Equity and Excellence, a group funded by Eli Broad and other wealthy philanthropists determined to privatize public education.

“The superintendent is a businessman who thinks his role is to save money. It’s not,” said Juan Ramirez, UTLA’s AFT vice president. “This is a school district, not a corporation, and our job is to provide all our students an excellent education.”

Impasse in bargaining was declared months ago, and UTLA members authorized a strike by a solid 98-2 percent margin in August. After a fact-finding panel releases its non-binding report in a few weeks, the district can impose its last, best and final proposal. Union members can then strike.

The union has strong support from the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, a national coalition of educators, parents, and community groups. Parents and coalition numbers shut down the board of education meeting in the week leading up to the rally.

“Parents are almost 100 percent behind us,” Ramirez said, “and now community leaders are getting involved.”

Adult education teacher Bob Yorgason came to the rally with two dozen coworkers from the Venice Skill Center, including staff represented by SEIU Local 99. Yorgason’s ESL students also attended.

LAUSD operated the second largest adult education program in the country, serving more than 400,000 students annually, until massive cuts during the Great Recession. Now, Yorgason said, charter schools are co-locating on remaining campuses.

The superintendent is a businessman who thinks his role is to save money. It’s not. This is a school district, not a corporation, and our job is to provide all our students an excellent education.

“Charters want to take over our skill centers and occupational sites to set up their schools,” he said. “They are going to kill us.”

Irene Serna teaches at Harbor Teacher Preparatory, a STEAM high school housed on the L.A. Community College District’s Harbor campus. Issues that hit closest to home for Serna are reducing class sizes and hiring more nurses and psychologists.

“I’m not worried about how a strike might affect me,” Serna said, “but I am concerned how a strike might disrupt the kids. I teach a lot of seniors, and this will be their last semester. They already have finals, college applications and admissions, and so many other things to worry about.”

Many picket signs referred to teacher strikes this year in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Colorado, Arizona, and Washington. UTLA marchers also drew strength from Tony Thurmond’s David-versus-Goliath election as California’s superintendent of public instruction in November.

“Tony Thurmond won against $34 million from the privatizers,” Caputo-Pearl said, then drew a connection to the upcoming election to fill a key seat on the school board this March.

UTLA is endorsing former Assemblymember and L.A. City Council Member Jackie Goldberg in a crowded field to replace the head of the board’s charter advocates, Ref Rodriguez. Critics called for Rodriguez to resign when he was indicted for violating campaign finance laws, but he stayed until the board could narrowly vote to hire Beutner. The race is likely to be decided in a May run-off election.

— By Steve Weingarten, CFT Reporter

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Our voices must be heard! Members elected to district governing boards

Jeannie Wallace had considered running for office before. As a union rep for the Morgan Hill Federation of Teachers and the chair of the local Democratic Party Central Committee, she knew how hard it could be to find candidates for the school board. But she thought she was too busy, and planned to do it when she retired.

Then she picked up her local paper and read that all the governing boards in her area — elementary, high school and community college — needed candidates. Feeling a sense of obligation to public education and democracy, Wallace went down to the local registrar. She saw there was a candidate for high school board — but still no one had filed to run for the Gavilan College Board of Trustees, also in Morgan Hill, at the southern tip of Silicon Valley.

Wallace told the registrar she would go home to think about it.

“She probably thought she’d never see me again,” Wallace said. “But I came back the next day and said, ‘All right, I’ll do it.’”

I’m aware of the importance of teachers, and I see them as professionals. I value their contributions, and those of staff, and I understand that’s what helps students.

Wallace has taught high school social studies, primarily civics and U.S. history, for 34 years. Since many of her former students attend Gavilan, Wallace thought that, with her experience in education, she as a community college board member, could help promote their success.

“I’ve seen movements and trends in education, so I’m sort of skeptical of grand proposals that claim to turn everything around when they’re just trying to make a bunch of money and pitch something that’s not really helpful,” she said. “I’m aware of the importance of teachers, and I see them as professionals. I value their contributions, and those of staff, and I understand that’s what helps students.”

With the endorsement of the South Bay Labor Council and the Democratic Party Central Committee, Wallace won the college board election. She plans to learn as much as she can about the college where she and her students have gone. She wants to promote student activism and, aware of how much she relied on it as a student, she’d like to work on getting a health center on campus.

Wallace is one of nearly 850 educators nationwide who ran for office in 2018, the majority of them women. As massive teacher strikes swept red states around the country earlier this year, many of those walking out of their classrooms in protest said they needed to change government from the inside. The majority ran as Democrats; some ran on the Republican ticket.

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Like Wallace, Craig Milgrim, a biology instructor at Grossmont College in El Cajon, comes to his new position on the board of the neighboring San Diego Community College District with decades of experience in education and labor activism. He has co-chaired his department for more than 10 years, served on the Academic Senate, and helped bring AFT representation to his campus. Being a trustee is a good way to continue to serve community college students, Milgrim says.

“Many of our students have economic challenges, he said. “They’re food insecure, housing insecure. Also I’m openly gay, so I have a special interest in bringing more information about the LGBTQ community to campus.”

Many of our students have economic challenges. They’re food insecure, housing insecure.

Milgrim, a proud member of the AFT Guild, Local 1931, says he’s glad that his district has already implemented an initiative to make community colleges free for the first year, which is now a statewide law. Like Wallace, he thinks his years of experience in the classroom and working with the school staff will help.

“We know how important teamwork with the staff is,” he said. “Who’s there every single day to help students? The classified staff.”

With the Supreme Court’s Janus v. AFSCME decision, which struck down agency fees, Milgrim believes union solidarity is more important than ever, and he’s proud every person in his department kept union membership in AFT Local 1931, after the decision.

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Josh Chancer, a high school teacher with the Oxnard Federation of Teachers and School Employees, AFT Local 1273, also thinks the Janus decision motivated educators to run for office. Chancer ran a successful campaign and was elected to serve on the Ventura County Community College District Board of Trustees.
Teachers should be stakeholders in the political process, Chancer says, and having them in public office can help balance attacks on educators and their ability to organize.

When he was campaigning, Chancer says he spoke with people who think unions fighting for better wages and conditions improve things for everyone. 

“People appreciate who we serve,” he said. “We’re a voice for equity.”

Chancer is excited to bring his leadership skills to the community college board. Teachers make good leaders, he says, since they solve problems in the classroom every day. 

Bea Herrera, a member of the Ventura College Federation of College Teachers, AFT Local 1828, was just re-elected to lead the Oxnard Union High School Board — she is now board president. She first ran for the board because she thought her experience as a counselor at Ventura College would be valuable on a high school board.

“I saw the need for an educator voice on the board,” she said. “I’m a college counselor, and I was seeing students coming to my college who needed help to be successful — whether that’s help with writing or managing their time.”

With a strong desire to continue advocating for the most vulnerable students, Herrera decided to run again.

“I’m not done,” she said. “Our motto is ‘Powerful futures for all students,’ and it’s important to consider all students in that — including special ed students and ESL students and foster kids. They need equity.”

More members elected: 

  • Andres Quintero, a member of the San Jose/Evergreen Federation of Teachers, was elected to the governing board of the Alum Rock Union Elementary School District.
  • Christina Gagnier, a member of UC-AFT Irvine ran successfully for a seat on the Chino Valley Unified School Board
  • Gabriela Lopez, a member of United Educators of San Francisco was elected to the board in her own district, San Francisco Unified. The law requires she resign her teaching position.

— By Emily Wilson, CFT Reporter

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A Blue Wave – but what next?

By Joshua Pechthalt, CFT President

By all measures, this was a very successful midterm election. Democrats picked up 40 seats in the U.S. House, which they will now control, and more than 300 legislative seats nationwide. In California, we ran the table on statewide officers and elected a supermajority in both houses of our state Legislature. Most importantly for us, Tony Thurmond was elected superintendent of public instruction. 

Even nationally, while Democrats lost close races like Beto O’Rourke in Texas, Andrew Gillum in Florida and Stacey Abrams in Georgia, they demonstrated that candidates with progressive messages could seriously challenge seemingly entrenched Republicans in red states. 

These states, along with our own Orange County and other examples from across the country, demonstrate that a progressive message not only excites the base but speaks to the concerns of independents as well. In 2020, Democratic presidential candidates who provide progressive solutions to jobs, healthcare, and climate change may even peel away voters from Trump. 

In spite of the fact that Democrats seem to have a lock on power in California and while the Republican Party is fading into irrelevancy, the organized charter school movement threatens the very nature of public education.

In the same way that Trump excites the Republican base, we need to be equally as bold. Frankly, that should have been a primary lesson from our Millionaires Tax experience. It’s exactly the reason Bernie resonated with progressives. 

It doesn’t mean we call for nationalizing all industries, but it does mean that calling for single payer healthcare and putting Americans to work rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, a la the New Deal, are the kind of bold initiatives we need. One thing is for sure, if Democrats can do no better than trot out corporate-tinged candidates with tired and measured bromides, we may vote for them but they are sure to excite no one.

Another important takeaway is that women are flexing their political muscles, running for office and being elected as never before. In 2020, we are going to continue to see women elected to local, statewide and national offices. A progressive woman on the presidential ticket should be a must. 

In spite of the fact that Democrats seem to have a lock on power in California and while the Republican Party is fading into irrelevancy, the organized charter school movement threatens the very nature of public education. 

The good news is that the Charter School Association failed to win any statewide office despite spending tens of millions of dollars. In the Primary Election, charter school advocate and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was badly beaten, and in the General Election, Marshall Tuck failed in his second bid to be elected state superintendent of public instruction. 

The Charter School Association, including billionaire contributors Eli Broad, Netflix’s Reed Hastings, the Waltons and others outspent Tony Thurmond by a 3-1 margin in the most expensive superintendent’s race in U.S. history and yet they went down to defeat. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that charter school money has been successful at electing local school board members and state legislators. 

The challenge for us as we go forward is to better explain how the organized charter school movement not only threatens existing in-district schools but the very nature of public education. Key to that success is more effectively engaging labor and community groups. 

While expanding a Democratic majority is a good thing, reaffirming and strengthening public education and taking on the charter school movement are imperative if we are to create the society we envision for our children and grandchildren.

Cox Freitas Willson

Election 2018: CFT’s heavy lifting helps flip seats, elect Thurmond, win local races

As anxious citizens watched the November 6 midterm election results, they weren’t at all sure how candidates and measures would fare. Results trickled in, but many races remained too close to call for weeks.

It wasn’t until December 6, a month after Election Day, that Republican incumbent David Valadao conceded the race in the Central Valley’s Congressional District 21, making official the win of Democratic challenger TJ Cox. This marked the 40th seat that Democrats reversed nationwide.
California had the largest share of contests in the national “Flip the House” strategy, and the CFT worked with a broad range of progressive groups to help win a stunning seven-of-seven targeted seats in the U.S House of Representatives.

The CFT worked with a broad range of progressive groups to help win a stunning seven-of-seven targeted seats in the U.S House of Representatives.

The defeat of all Republican incumbents in Orange County, long a Republican stronghold, garnered national attention with observers announcing the fall of the “Orange Curtain.” The 53-member California congressional delegation now includes only six Republicans.

The seven newly elected representatives, listed below, join a cohort of the most diverse freshman members ever elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

  • TJ Cox represents a large district in the southern San Joaquin Valley (CD-21);
  • Gil Cisneros represents parts of L.A., Orange and San Bernadino Counties (CD-39);
  • Josh Harder represents the northern San Joaquin Valley (CD-10);
  • Katie Hill, parts of northern L.A. County and part of eastern Ventura County in CD-25;
  • Mike Levin, the coastal communities of northern San Diego County and far southern Orange County (CD-49);
  • Katie Porter represents southern interior Orange County (CD-45)
  • Harley Rouda represents most of coastal Orange County (CD-48) 
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Democrats sweep state offices; voters reject attacks on revenue streams

In additional to capturing targeted congressional races, CFT-endorsed candidates won in every statewide constitutional office, including Gavin Newsom, who becomes our state’s 40th governor. Democrats also reclaimed supermajorities in both houses of the California Legislature.

The most impressive victory – and the most critical for public education – was Tony Thurmond’s defeat of Marshall Tuck for superintendent of public instruction. Tuck and his allies in the California Charter School Association and similar “education reform”-oriented groups spent upwards of $40 million to defeat Thurmond in the General Election.

But Assemblyman Thurmond put forth a clear message that resonated with voters – protect our public schools; support our students and educators. With strong support from educators, the labor movement, the California Democratic Party, and high-profile endorsements such as that of U.S. Rep. Kamala Harris, Thurmond ultimately overcame the enormous financial disadvantage to win the hardest-fought election of the cycle with 50.9 percent of the vote.

The “flip” continued in the California Legislature, with Democrats picking up eight previously red seats, including two in Orange County: Cottie Petrie-Norris (Assembly District 74) and Tom Umberg (Senate District 34). These victories, and more listed below, contributed to securing Democratic supermajorities in both the state Assembly and Senate:

  • Melissa Hurtado flipped a Central Valley Senate seat (SD 14);
  • Christy Smith won an Assembly seat in Los Angeles County (AD 38);
  • Tasha Boerner-Horvath won Northern San Diego County seat (AD 76), and;
  • Rebecca Bauer-Kahan won a Contra Costa County seat (AD 16).

Democrats now hold an almost three-quarters majority in the Legislature, and it will be up to groups like CFT to ensure they wield this power to fight for increased revenue for public education, student debt relief, and labor protections for all workers.

As in every election, there were some disappointments. Proposition 10, which sought to repeal 1995’s Costa-Hawkins Act and would have allowed cities to enact rent control measures, fell short by 20 points. Proposition 11, which requires ambulance workers to remain on call during their breaks and sets dangerous labor standards for that industry, passed by 20 points.

But voters registered support for maintaining state revenues. Proposition 5, which would have doubled down on elements of 1978’s Proposition 13 and blown a multi-billion dollar hole in the state budget, failed by a wide margin. Similarly, voters realized the need for road and infrastructure improvements and rejected Proposition 6, a conservative attempt to repeal the gas tax.

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AFT local unions succeed at ballot box

CFT members once again demonstrated commitment to their school communities and did incredible work to win district governing board races and local tax measures. Several local unions won clean sweeps in their districts, electing three of three candidates in board races. These locals include the:

  • Petaluma Federation of Teachers;
  • Berkeley Federation of Teachers;
  • San Francisco Community College Federation of Teachers;
  • Jefferson Elementary Federation of Teachers in Daly City; and
  • Pajaro Valley Federation of Teachers in Watsonville.

In San Francisco, the K-12 local, United Educators of San Francisco, and the community college federation, collaborated to successfully elect three jointly-endorsed candidates for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

Lastly, several local unions helped pass parcel and bond measures in their districts to secure more revenue for their schools and students:

  • Measure K in the Culver City Unified School District;
  • Measure J in Marin County’s Tamalpais Union High School District;
  • Measure BB in the ABC Unified School District;
  • Measure Y in Daly City’s Jefferson Union High School District; and
  • Measure U in Daly City’s Jefferson Elementary School District.

CFT deserves a great deal of credit for the amazing results in this exhilarating midterm election. We proved once again that “When we show up, we win.”

- By Jessica Ulstad, CFT Political Director