State of the Union 

Delivered by CFT President Joshua Pechthalt on April 1, 2017


Sisters and brothers, members of the CFT. It is always great to be at our convention, to see friends, to think about the year gone as we prepare for the challenges ahead.

And boy do we face some tough challenges.

The election of Donald Trump jeopardizes the progressive gains of the last 80 years. Trump also threatens, almost daily, the basic sense of ethics, civic mindedness and fairness, valued across the political spectrum.

This election underscores what has been missing from American politics and that is a progressive movement capable of promoting a political agenda that advocates for good, unionized jobs in a sustainable economy, ensures health care for all, and funds public education properly. A progressive movement that advocates for limits on the cost of higher education while tackling student debt; that makes climate, racial and criminal justice reforms top priorities, and a movement that reduces the U.S.’s military budget and reshapes a foreign policy in the Middle East and elsewhere based on economic and social justice.

Such a progressive movement would give angry, disillusioned Americans a class-conscious way to make sense of the world rather than falling victim to the bombastic rhetoric of a TV huckster.

And while it is easy to be disillusioned at the state of American politics, we can’t afford to throw up our hands and advocate for secession or retreat to our gardens, as inviting as that may sound. Our members look to us for leadership at this critical time. It’s relatively easy to be a leader when things are going well. It is moments like this that define us as leaders, and by leaders, I mean everyone in this room!

We would do well to remember that as bleak as this moment is, it doesn’t compare to the genocide against Native and Africans Americans, it doesn’t compare to the mass deportation of Latinos during the 1930s, the internment of Japanese Americans, or the anti-Semitism directed against Jews in the era of the Second World War.

It is also critical, we remember the moments when people acted, when political consciousness changed, sometimes overnight, and they created movements, in the streets, for social change.

Whether it was the 1930s, the Civil Rights movement or the anti-Vietnam war movement, these social movements forced politicians to enact sweeping, progressive legislation, end wars and improve the lives of millions of Americans.

The organized resistance will, hopefully, result in such a movement. Ironically, Trump’s election, may have inspired the kind of movement we have not seen in generations.

The crisis we face at the national level, should not diminish the remarkable successes the CFT achieved this past year. In fact, we should build on our successes to fuel our resistance.

After years of organizing, legal battles, legislative victories and the first faculty strike in its history, City College of San Francisco was granted accreditation for seven years. Students can now enroll in school without worrying that their college will be closed. We did that! You did that!

Barbara Beno, the former President of the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges and her top leaders have been forced to step down. And while City College has dodged a bullet, we continue with our lawsuit with the goal of finding an accreditor that works collaboratively with our colleges rather than through fear and intimidation.

While community colleges across the state continue to be shackled by an accrediting commission run amok, the failure of Compton College to be accredited, although it operates as a satellite of El Camino College, is an injustice that reeks of institutional racism. We have been working with the leadership of both our classified and faculty unions to organize our members, build stronger locals and win back accreditation.

While the national election was disappointing, to say the least, we had significant victories in California. The people of our State overwhelmingly passed Propositions 55 and 58. Prop 55 extends Prop 30 twelve more years, without the regressive sales tax hike, and will continue to generate more than six billion dollars a year for education and other needs. We will now have almost 20 years of progressive taxation. This is remarkable and would not have been possible had not the CFT led the fight on the Millionaires Tax. We did that! You did that!

Prop 58 reverses Props 187 and 227 and recognizes the importance of a student’s primary language and the need to transition to English on a logical timeline. It underscores the changing reality in our state that values immigrants rather than sees them as a threat. You helped make that happen!

We elected Kamala Harris to replace Barbara Boxer as senator and she will be a strong progressive voice in the Senate.

Californians also elected a super majority of Democrats in both the Assembly and the Senate, although it is not a panacea given some of the Democrats who were elected. We will need to organize against the flood of corporate charter school and big oil money now flooding into the coffers of Democrats.

The CFT also had several legislative victories that give greater voice to part time faculty in our community colleges, offers financial assistance for classified workers who want to become teachers, provides family leave for classified workers and community college instructors, funds restorative justice programs in our schools and establishes, for the first time, a theater and dance credential.

A number of our locals were successful getting members involved in the election and doing the vital work of GOTV but I want to give a special shout out to the more than 50 members and staff who traveled to other states to help with voter turnout.

Many of our locals were systematic in their outreach to members and non-members alike and were able to motivate agency fee payers to become full union members. You set a high bar but one that will be necessary as we head into this next period. Congratulations!

But the electoral successes in California can’t obscure the stunning victory of Donald Trump and the threat he poses.

While it wasn’t true in our state, throughout the country, labor and Democrats failed to connect with key constituencies. More than forty percent of union members rejected their own unions and voted for Trump. In a few cases, their own unions even supported him or didn’t participate!

States that have historically voted Democratic, like Michigan, Minnesota and Pennsylvania, voted for Trump. Remarkably states and over 400 counties that voted for Obama, voted for Trump.

Trump’s election represents an unprecedented threat to public education. The confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education ensures that the Trump administration will not only move a privatization agenda, it will likely go beyond what any Republican or Democratic administration has attempted before.

Of course, the attack on public education is only part of an agenda which includes the ramped-up deportation of immigrants and turning back the clock on climate change policy. The opposition to and possible repeal of the Affordable Care Act, opposition to a woman’s control of her own body and the possible overturning of Roe v. Wade, an attack on labor including the end of agency fee, the possibility of national right to work legislation, federal opposition to voting rights gains and more.

So how did we get here?

The Trump phenomenon has peeled back a deep well of racist sentiments. Trump has given license to the minority who have these views to be able to express them in a public way.

Part of his base makes no bones about their white supremacist views. The emergence of the alt-right and Steve Bannon as a key advisor to Trump represents the ascendance of a neo-fascist current. We have seen these movements before but they have never achieved the level of power that we are seeing today.

It would be easy to lump together all of Trump’s supporters as racists but I think that would be a serious mistake. I believe, many people voted for Trump because the system has failed them. In the minds of many voters, Trump represents a rejection of business-as-usual politics in both the Republican and Democratic Parties. Across a broad swath of this country, once thriving communities that had good paying, unionized jobs making steel, autos, tires and other kinds of manufacturing have been decimated.

I remember the AFT convention in downtown Detroit a few years ago. A once vibrant city that produced the finest cars in the world with unionized labor was a ghost town. Walking to the convention center from my hotel there were almost no cars on the street. Beautiful old buildings that were the heart and soul of the city sat empty.

A global economy that relentlessly pursues the cheapest labor possible has deindustrialized much of this country, leaving millions of angry people in its wake. It is an economy that for many communities now relies on low paying, service sector jobs, a declining standard of living for the children of these workers and no hope that things will get better. Is it any wonder that there is an epidemic of oxycodone and heroin in these communities?

When Trump says, he will make America great again by ending terrible trade agreements that have acerbated the decline of the economy, when he scapegoats immigrants and Muslims and says that elites are not to be trusted, he uses the same sort of nativist rhetoric as demagogues before him.

Trump’s election also reveals that without a coherent progressive vision of the world, many people are politically rudderless. They have no lens with which to make sense of the world and can fall victim to a snake oil salesman.

Main stream American politics lacks a class-conscious prism with which to understand the world. Such an understanding would allow all workers, both blue and white collar, to see that their interests lie in forging bounds across racial and religious differences and that these divisions weaken their class interests and benefit the ruling class.

Unfortunately, I believe, much of the Democratic Party aided in the political climate that elected Trump. The party supported disastrous trade agreements, like the TPP and NAFTA that valued business over workers and they pursued a cautious political path that left many workers out in the cold.

When Trump attacked these agreements, he also effectively attacked Democrats for supporting them.

One example of the Democrat’s failure to stake out an unambiguous, progressive vision is healthcare. While the Affordable Care Act provides millions of people access to health care the failure of Democrats to openly fight for single payer or a public option, meant that when premiums went up, and they were bound to go up, Democrats like Hillary Clinton were held to blame. Had the Democrats been consistent in support of a public option or single payer, it would have been more difficult to use this issue against them.

In California, while we were successful in resisting Trump, we did see the onslaught of charter school money that has troubling implications. In the last election, the Charter School Association spent more than $20 million to elect Democrats. Their influence helped defeat SB 320, a relatively modest bill that was not anti-charter but called for transparency and accountability when Democrats, some of them supposedly “pro-labor” either voted against the bill or abstained.

A few weeks ago, LA Unified School Board president Steve Zimmer, whom many of you heard at the AFT convention, was forced into a runoff because the Charter School Association and wealthy pro-charter allies Eli Broad, Michael Bloomberg and Richard Riordan spent millions of dollars and waged a vicious campaign to unseat him.

Trump has also helped fan the flames of McCarthy like tactics as evidenced in Orange County. Our sister Olga Perez Stable Cox, a teacher at Coast Community College was secretly filmed by a student—without her consent, against campus policy and in violation of state law—responding to a student question about the election and how she was coping with the new political reality. The student was originally suspended by the college, but under pressure, the college has rescinded the suspension. Ms. Cox has become a target for right wing radio and has received disparaging calls, nasty emails and death threats.

But in spite of all of this, now is not the time for despair!

A movement in the streets is emerging the likes of which we have not seen in a long time. The Women’s March that many of you participated in put millions of people in the streets, not only around the country but around the world. The march was organized to highlight the cause of women’s rights and it became a creative, energized expression of resistance to Trump.

Trump’s travel ban against Muslims coming into the US from seven countries, mobilized masses of people to show up at airports to oppose his actions.

ICE raids have been met with protests and declarations of sanctuary across the country.

And while it is imperative we take back control of congress and the White House, we must continue to build and strengthen this movement because it is the foundation of moving a progressive agenda.

So how do we do that?

We know the CFT is going to be hit with an unprecedented attack! More than two years ago, we assumed we would lose agency fee with the Friedrichs’ case. Our Building Power campaign was focused on engaging and convincing agency fee payers to become full members. The death of Justice Scalia and the assumption Hillary Clinton would be the next president gave us, in my opinion, a false sense of security.

Now it’s clear that we will lose agency fee and we can expect national right to work legislation in the private sector. We could also lose automatic payroll deduction and possibly see public sector unions lose the right to collectively bargain.

The CFT leadership is gearing up for this new political landscape. We have developed an organizing framework that has since been adopted by the executive council.

This framework deals with all aspects of the organization, including building and strengthening ties to community allies, organizing, data, communications and more effectively working with our locals. It is imperative that we prepare ourselves to survive the long fight, and in the next few years we must examine how we effectively engage our members, what is essential to our organization and what we can do, and what we must do to be a stronger union.

It won’t be easy. The loss of agency fee will have serious consequences for all public-sector unions. Declining revenue will require soul searching and making very difficult decisions, if we want to come out of this crisis able to represent our members and advocate for public education.

It won’t be easy for us or our locals, but that is why we have stepped forward to be leaders-to provide leadership in times of crisis. And this is a crisis!

As we navigate the difficult waters ahead, we can’t forget that our members look to us to make their lives better.

For classified members, that means taking another run at improving death benefits. Last year, we got further than we have in the past but ultimately were unsuccessful.

The uncontrolled expansion of charter schools particularly hurt our classified members. While some charter schools have unionized teachers, almost none have unionized classified workers. The CFT will be working with other unions to stop the practice of for-profit charters from either operating outright or managing charters.

The CFT will also be working with the CTA and our locals to cap the expansion of charter schools and to legislate greater transparency and accountability. If we want to get this adopted, we must organize, given the Governor’s support of charter schools.

We are also sponsoring legislation that will give classified and certificated employees in K-12 and community college districts six weeks of paid maternity leave.

For part time community college instructors, and again with your active involvement, we want to get funding for paid office hours.

For beginning K-12 teachers, we are sponsoring legislation that puts the financial burden of beginning teacher programs on the state, not on the backs of teachers.

We are also making a budget proposal with several unions and with the support from the Speaker’s office that would fund a pilot program modelled on the Collective Bargaining project that had its birth in UTLA and LAUSD and was given life through the tireless work of CFT member Linda Tubach. This pilot is aimed at teaching students union history and the dynamics of collective bargaining. At a time when labor consciousness is low, it is more urgent than ever that we teach our students the meaning of being in a union.

There is obviously a great deal of uncertainty coming from Washington. Will ESSA-Every Student Succeeds Act and the Affordable Care Act be scuttled and what will be the implications for our members.

We must respond to the attacks coming from Washington while working to improve the lives of our members.

The ramped-up deportation, or threat of deportation, of undocumented immigrants means we must train our members on the rights of students, their families and even our own members. We must also work to have more districts and cities be declared as sanctuaries or safe zones. Already the fear that parents will be picked up by ICE and break apart families, has cast a blanket of fear over the immigrant community. We can’t allow this to happen without organizing opposition!

At this critical juncture, it’s imperative labor play a role in leading the resistance. Unfortunately, when the national leadership of the building trades agreed to meet with Trump to secure their own jobs, that weakened our ability to fight back.

This divide in the labor movement will be encouraged by the Trump administration. It is reminiscent of what happened in Wisconsin where police and firefighters allied with Scott Walker while other public sector unions were attacked. As a result, labor was divided, Wisconsin lost much of its union membership and with the exception of police and firefighters, public sector unions lost collective bargaining rights. Once Walker had destroyed the public-sector unions, he introduced right to work legislation for private sector unions.

So how do we build a sustainable movement that changes the balance of power and can put progressives in office?

We must continue to organize our members and identify and support great union reps in every workplace we represent.

We must also look for opportunities to bring unorganized workers into the movement. Through the attack on health care, civil liberties and the erosion of conditions in and out of the workplace, workers may see that they need the collective power of a union to protect their interests and strengthen their ability to fight back. We need to be poised to take advantage of that situation.

The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools or AROS, is a national labor-community coalition that could be a vehicle for building opposition to the Trump agenda. AROS’ goal is to organize and build support for a progressive vision of education that challenges the market reforms being promoted by wealthy individuals and government leaders.

AROS has organized a series of actions and the next big mobilization is targeted for May 1st. Besides the obvious ties to the International Day of the Worker, there will be a national mobilization around immigrant rights.

Like yesterday’s march, the May 1st action will now give us the opportunity to raise up education issues, as well as immigration. The CFT is going to be working with locals around the state to mobilize on that date. I would urge you to organize your members and work with parents, students and the community to find an action that corresponds to their level of resistance. In some locals that might be informational picketing. In others, it might be a one-hour job action. In others, it might be more! But, we need to step up our resistance. We can no longer afford business as usual.

We are going to have resolution that commits the CFT working with the CTA to participate in the May 1st action that I hope you will overwhelmingly support.

In California, we continue to work with, Make it Fair, a broad coalition of labor and community groups looking to put a property tax reform measure before voters, either in 2018 or 2020. While Prop 30 and Prop 55 stopped the bleeding, our state still underfunds education. Until we reform Prop 13, we are never going to fund our schools properly.

If we are going to be successful in building something that has the power to change the direction of this country, we can’t continue to be siloed narrowly into our areas of concern. Unions must be willing to reach out and engage with the emerging movements around immigration, racial justice, women’s rights, health care and the environment. We need a coalition that wraps its arms around all these issues and expands our power.

At the local and state level that means working in your local unions, your central labor councils and changing the direction of the Democratic Party to be more progressive and to play a leadership role in building opposition to the Trump administration.

The next few years will be painful but like any resistance, our success will be defined by our persistence.

I don’t know if a progressive movement will emerge from this fight and it would be foolish to predict what will happen. But I know this much, the CFT was the one union that had the guts to lead on the Majority Budget Act, Prop 25. When the state faced a devastating recession, the CFT stepped forward to organize a historic 47-day march through the Central Valley to Sacramento to shine a light on this crisis. When the largest community college in the nation was threatened with closing its doors, the CFT with local 2121 took on the ACCJC. And when our schools suffered through years of layoffs and cuts, the CFT, working with a broad alliance of community groups but with no support from any other union, put forward the Millionaires Tax and forced the Governor to negotiate a compromise that will generate billions of dollars for our schools for a generation!

We may not be as big as other unions or have their resources, but we have you. Members who are dedicated to education and yet see that we are part of something bigger. That with all its flaws, we are proud to be part of a labor movement. We are proud to be part of a sisterhood and brotherhood that has classified workers, housekeepers, auto workers, truck drivers, plumbers, actors, teachers and other workers. And that we are proud to be part of a movement dedicated to social justice. We are the CFT!

Thank you