20180324CFTConv0290

State of the Union

Delivered by President Josh Pechthalt at CFT Convention, March 24, 2018

This past year has been at times demoralizing, frightening, offensive and challenging. Yet through it all shines a ray of hope that something may be changing. In spite of all the administration’s bombastic rhetoric, or because of it, there seems to be broad opposition to Trump’s policies and growing clamor for something different.

I’m reminded of a conversation I had with a neighbor shortly after the election of Trump. She came to me for words of encouragement because she was at a loss to find any hope in the wake of his election.

She was hoping to hear that in spite of the election there was some political realignment that would soon turn things around. Unfortunately, that didn’t seem to be in the cards.

I suggested to her that Trump’s election had unmasked some dark truths about this country as well as a rejection of the political status quo. And that in order to change the direction of our country, we needed a powerful progressive social movement capable of pushing both politicians and policies in a left direction. I’m sure that seemed so pie in the sky to her that she probably walked away from our conversation more downcast than when we began our chat. Truth be told, it seemed pie in the sky to me as well.

Then the women’s march happened and all of a sudden it seemed that something had changed.

That was followed by mobilizations at airports in defense of immigrants and then a science march.

A few weeks ago, West Virginia educators went on strike and forced the governor and state legislature to give them a 5 percent raise and create a task force to look at health care benefits. According to Education Week, the actions by West Virginia educators have now emboldened those in Arizona, Oklahoma and Kentucky!

Students are also mobilizing like we haven’t seen in generations!

Something is beginning to stir in the American people!

The political realignment that seemed so far away may be happening sooner than we thought. But we have to be cautious. The forces we face are extremely rich and powerful and they will try and divide us. But working families also have a history of organizing and we only need to look at our colleagues in West Virginia and our students to see what we are capable of.

But the fight for public education is more challenging. Some of the same men and women who will support the women’s march, environmental justice and immigrant rights don’t see the importance of organized labor and certainly not education unions.

These same liberal individuals support charter schools and see no problem in doing so.

But below the veneer of liberalism, we have seen the money of charter school forces making political in-roads at every level of government. In the last two election cycles, the charter school association spent tens of millions of dollars to win key school board races and influence the state Legislature. 

The CFT has members who work at charter schools and we respect our members’ rights to work where they choose and the great things they do. But the corporate charter school movement has as its goal to create parallel school systems that are free from education unions. They want the ability to hire at-will employees and they fight the kind of accountability and transparency to which all other in-district schools must be held.

However, we can’t be defenders of the shortcomings of the public education system either and we must recognize and deal head on with the biases and racism that plague our system.

But, when critics fail to mention that California ranks near the bottom of the nation in class size average and per pupil spending, their rhetoric is hollow at best and criminal at worst.

Improving education is no mystery. We spend our lives working with kids, young adults and students of all ages. But those who simply find fault with the system, whether they know it or not, are contributing to the political narrative that erodes the public’s confidence in public institutions while feeding the beast that says competition is the best way to allocate resources.

It’s the same narrative that has created a huge wealth gap in this country, and that wants to see the privatization of education, health care, Social Security and Medicare.

On a local level, we face a myriad of challenges. Many of our K-12 and community college districts are seeing declining enrollment, which will be used by management to play hard ball at the bargaining table and to threaten layoffs. Many of these same districts while pleading poverty have huge financial reserves that could be used for such a situation. But they won’t use that money either for students or our members unless we are organized and willing to force them.

As many of you know, CalSTRS and CalPERS implemented policy changes that required our pension plans to be 100 percent funded. The CFT, in consultation with experts in the field, argued for 80 percent funding, but we lost that battle. Districts are now required to increase their contributions to the pension funds which further exacerbates tensions at the bargaining table.

Several weeks ago, the unimaginable killings at a Florida high school may have been the tipping point in getting politicians off their butts and to stand up to the NRA. How many more killings will it take in schools and the daily killings of brown and black youth in our cities before we pass meaningful, common sense gun control legislation.

As a high school social studies teacher of more than 20 years at Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles, the loss of students and family members had devastating consequences. I remember visiting the home of one of my students who had been permanently blinded by gun shots — his life was changed forever.

One of my students who was always bright and energetic and a pleasure to have in class showed up nearly catatonic on a Monday because his cousin had been killed over the weekend.

As you know, this happens over and over in this country and little seems to change.

Hopefully, an awareness of that is beginning to change with the student actions on March 14 and later today and the one planned for April 20. These are all a step in the right direction!

Let me remind this body that is was the CFT, without support from any other labor organizations, that led the successful effort to get CalSTRS to divest from the gun manufacturer that made the weapon used in the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

To top it off, we have been hit hard by one natural disaster after the other. The joke in Southern California is that our seasons consist of fires, mudslides, droughts and earthquakes. But it’s been no joke this year. From Puerto Rico, Florida, Texas, to California our members have lost homes and we have lost loved ones. The CFT, AFT and our members have stepped up to raise funds to help out those who have been affected.

And despite all the noise coming from Washington D.C., as my daughter would say, we continue grinding and achieving success.

After five years of costly court cases, working at the national and state levels to bring about legislative changes and organizing actions, we have won significant reforms of the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges. First, City College of San Francisco was accredited for seven years after being threatened with losing their accreditation. President Barbara Beno was forced to step down. A new president of the ACCJC, who seems to want to work with us and change an adversarial relationship, was elected by their board. And several months ago, we reached a settlement in our lawsuit of the ACCJC, in which Jim Mahler the president of our Community College Council played a key role.

While we continue to be ever vigilant, the settlement is basically all we were asking for in our lawsuit and closes the legal chapter in this fight.

This settlement will have positive consequences throughout the community college system. I want to give a shout out to our community college leaders who have fought this battle for five long years. Former AFT Local 2121 President Alisa Messer, current President Tim Killikelly, Jim Mahler, former CFT President Marty Hittelman and many others.

The CFT, working with Local 2121, the AFT, and the San Francisco community made this victory possible!

The accreditation of Compton College was another part of the victory. When Compton lost its accreditation in 2005, not because of anything the faculty or staff had done but due to the financial improprieties of the college board of trustees, they were told it would take 20 years before they could be reaccredited. Even last year we heard it would take years.

The story of Compton reveals a pattern of institutional racism that we have seen elsewhere. Poor communities of color are regularly denied the right of self-governance when the real crime is poverty. Although that wasn’t the stated reason for Compton, like elsewhere, the implicit racist message is that because you’re black or brown and poor you can’t take care of yourself. The Compton faculty and staff have tried to get someone to listen and finally we have a victory.

All of this is happening in the context of a federal administration that is fanning the flames of racism and anti-immigrant rhetoric, working to curtail a woman’s right to choose, systematically retreating on voting and labor rights, turning back the clock on environmental protections while expanding military spending and irresponsibly using the threat of nuclear war. I’m not being melodramatic when I say we are seeing all the signs of early 1930s Nazi Germany.

The challenge for the CFT is to find the appropriate role in pushing back against this reactionary tide, preparing for a post-Janus world and the loss of agency fee and the resources that come with it. All the while representing our members and assisting our locals.

First and foremost, we have to recognize that we can’t do this alone. While we have to get our own house in order by organizing our members, we have to expand our power by strengthening our alliances with labor and community groups. The CFT has intentionally worked to be part of a number of alliances because we think this is vital.

As we approach the November elections, we face both opportunities and challenges. Unlike every other election!

We have endorsed Gavin Newsom in the governor’s race after doing a straw poll and extensive polling of our members. The numbers for Newsom were overwhelming. Not only does he have the most progressive platform of any mainstream candidate, he has the best chance of winning against former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. This will not be a cake walk.

The other race that is a priority for the CFT is the State Superintendent of Public Instruction. We have endorsed Assemblymember Tony Thurmond, who you heard this weekend. I don’t have to sell you on brother Thurmond. But he faces a monumental challenge from an experienced candidate who, like Mayor Villaraigosa, has received financial backing from deep-pocketed charter school advocates.

The CFT is also working with the state’s labor movement to flip seven congressional races as part of a national effort to win back Democratic control of the House and the Senate.

Nationally, nearly 40 Republican congressmen and senators will not be running again.

But we should have no illusions about the Democratic Party. We need to make sure that Democrats continue moving in a progressive direction. But breaking the grip of a Republican Party that has been captured by the far right, must be a priority.

We can’t become complacent and nothing is a given, as we know all too well. But taking back the House of Representatives will be key in pushing back the Trump agenda and winning the White House in 2020.

As you know, we are getting ready for a decision by the Supreme Court in the Janus case. Anti-union forces have targeted public sector unions because we are the most unionized sector of the labor force and we are a key component of the Democratic Party — although apparently many elected leaders of the Democratic Party don’t quite understand that.

First and foremost, anti-public education forces hope we will be weakened in our struggle to ensure our students have the finest education possible. They hope this further accelerates the growth of charter schools, vouchers, and ultimately the privatization of public education.

By weakening public sector unions, the entire labor movement will be hurt. Working and middle class Americans will see an erosion of wages and our ability to fight for health care and retirement benefits. That’s not an accident. It’s exactly what the Koch brothers, the Mercer family, the Waltons and the rest of the far right want!

Janus and the money behind this case argue that this is a First Amendment issue. Of course, it’s no more a First Amendment issue than the obligation we have to pay our taxes, whether we disagree with our government or not. No one’s First Amendment right to disagree with their union is being denied.

But when the majority of workers at a workplace say they want a union then a minority shouldn’t be able to say they won’t abide by that decision. When the majority of Supreme Court judges voted in favor of Citizens United, whether we agreed with that decision or not, we were obliged to abide by it. Apparently, in the case of the Supreme Court, what’s good for the goose is not good for the gander.

So how have we been preparing?

More than two years ago, we began working with locals to move agency fee payers to become full members. We established criteria by which locals could determine whether they are strong and effective, and a support system to help get them there.

Soon after the election of Trump, we began looking at how the CFT operates, what our priorities should be and how we could survive in a post-Janus world. Committees were formed looking at every aspect of our organization. The Executive Council wrestled with these proposals, made changes and ultimately adopted them.

We have held regional meetings with local leaders on the implications of Janus and how to begin the difficult process of doing a thorough look into how locals operate. Jeff, Lacy, and I have tried to visit as many locals as possible to talk about what’s coming and how to get ready. And we have a team of organizers that have been barnstorming the entire state to help.

As we prepare for Janus, we have to show our members that not only is a union essential in fighting for salary and benefits but we are also a vehicle for change.

Like the Millionaires Tax, we have to be bold. This is not the time for caution. In part, caution put us where we are today. The world is not static and people change. We have to anticipate that change and act accordingly.

That doesn’t mean we act foolishly. But if we’re providing leadership and showing members and non-members alike that we stand for something, that the CFT is working to change public education and the quality of life for Californians, it will be easier to retain members in the post-Janus world.

That’s why we are supporting legislation and initiatives that will support our students, the families we serve, and make California a dramatically better place to live.

One of the issues that has been a mainstay for the CFT has been support for single payer or Medicare for All. The fight to maintain health care benefits unifies our members like nothing else and, not surprisingly, causes more division with management at the bargaining table.

As we know, even with its problems and an intensive campaign by Republicans to discredit it, the Affordable Care Act is now widely supported by the American people. The Trump administration and the Republican Party have made it their mission to end any semblance of a national health care system for one that is market-based. Ironically, we are closer today to achieving single payer than ever before.

Assemblymember Lara has introduced AB 562 to create a single payer plan in California and while that plan may not see the light of day, it has become part of the debate around healthcare like never before. Gavin Newsom, the frontrunner for governor and our endorsed candidate, supports single payer and support for it has increased throughout the nation.

If single payer does not become the law in California this year, we have to know that support across the country will continue to grow. The Affordable Care Act, whether fully implemented or not, still puts private insurance companies in the role of gatekeeper. The health care crisis will continue to deepen and make single payer more attractive.

The CFT will continue to support efforts to implement it now, but we will also support keeping labor together in this struggle and not creating divisions among our ranks.

We are also supportive of the College for All effort because it is the right thing to do. It makes higher education accessible to those who have been least able to afford it while serving as a potential magnet to get young people to the polls.

Finally, Proposition 13 reform could make it to the ballot in November. Currently, the CFT is the only statewide union to support this effort. Other statewide unions, while supportive in principle, don’t believe this is right time. They certainly make a strong case. But it’s the same message we have heard for 40 years. It’s never the right time. It wasn’t the right time for the Millionaires tax, or for Proposition 30, but we forged ahead and we won.

While there are real reasons to be cautious, public education will continue to suffer unless we change the unjust property tax system in this state.

California has lost out on billions of dollars in uncollected property tax revenues that have made class size and per pupil spending near the bottom of the nation. A reformed property tax system will ask legacy commercial property owners, like Disneyland and Universal Studios, to pay property taxes based on fair market value. It will also help small businesses, who opened after Prop 13, by creating a more level playing field. A more equitable property tax structure could generate as much as $11 billion dollars a year.

I want to be clear though, property tax reform still has hurdles to overcome to make it to the ballot this year. However, all these initiatives are part of a bold vision that we must support if we want to improve education for our students, transform California and show our members that being part of the CFT is important.

Does it mean we’re ready for Janus? I worry we’re not. Have CFT locals developed a written plan? I’m channeling Joe Boyd, our executive director, who repeatedly reminds us, if you don’t have a written plan you don’t have a plan. If there is one thing to take away from my talk, it’s that you need a plan and you have do it as soon as possible.

You may think your local is strong and your members are immune to leaving the union, but the Koch brothers are ready to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to get your members to do just that. You need to be prepared!

The challenges before us are daunting. We can have no illusions that because we have been there, we will always be there. We simply have to look at Michigan and Wisconsin, that were the bedrock of unionism, to see how things have changed.

As challenging as the next period may be, I know this, we have members and retirees who forged this union before agency fee existed and before we had the right to collectively bargain. Yet that didn’t stop them. They organized, talked to their colleagues and built this union from the bottom up.

We need to be reminded of that and to look to our sisters and brothers who won the right to collectively bargain, won agency fee, decent health care benefits, due process, and all the rights we have today.

If we stand together, we have more than a fighting chance to come through the Janus case stronger than ever. The teachers of West Virginia and students from around the country have shown us the path. Now it’s up to us to do what we do best — fight for our students, our members and our families.

Sisters and brothers, when I look out across this room, I see dedicated unionists ready to engage this struggle. Are you with me? Then let’s kick some behind!