Written by Yusef El-Baz
Our contract campaign in United Educators of San Francisco (UESF), which began in early February, presents socialists with an opportunity to nurture a movement centered on working class autonomy, solidarity, and militancy. This campaign comes at the end of an inspiring and illuminating year of strikes and class struggle in public education in the US and across the world, in which educators and allies took to the streets, shut down schools, and forced the capitalist state to redistribute millions of dollars to public schools. While educators experienced the ups and downs of class struggle with a combination of euphoria, uncertainty, solidarity, and demoralization, our struggles have also increased the confidence and combativity of the working-class, opening up possibilities for expanding the class struggle and socialist politics.
To make matters more complex, the abrupt and destructive COVID-19 crisis unleashed itself after our union had conducted barely one round of negotiations with the district and after hundreds of members organized against budget cuts to our schools. As our district moved to close schools in its slow and uncoordinated response to the proliferating virus, pedagogy and organizing slowed down and gave way to the panic-stricken reaction to the crisis. Our union leadership, to its credit, began conversations with the district around immediate issues and provided members with Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) on a regular basis, ensuring continuity of pay, benefits, building sanitation, and clarified work expectations from the district. In addition, on the heels of United Teachers of Los Angeles, the Chicago Teachers Union, the Seattle Educators for Equity, and other educator locals and caucuses, UESF signed on to a ‘Common Good’ platform with other unions and organizations, such as the SEIU Local 1021, with demands including increased sick leave and direct pay to the city’s workers. And while our union has led worthy mutual-aid efforts in distributing food and promising economic support to undocumented families, it has yet to take clear political leadership; they’ve said nothing regarding the status of our contract fight, how members will remain politically involved in union matters during closure, or how we plan on organizing to defend and win our demands.
In our now third week of school closures, thousands of education workers in our district, as in many others, are being thrust into the development of online education – and the fundamental reorganization of our labor process it represents – mandated by our district to begin on April 13th, generating hours and hours of labor on top of confusion, questions, and resistance to the process. A small, but growing network of rank and file educators, called #StrikeReadySF (SRSF), have begun to organize online and produce responses to this crisis, including a ‘Stance on Online Learning’ that has received support from educators far outside of our local, with the purpose of leveraging our collective power – in this case digital labor – to resist the imposition of senseless workloads and the looming decimation of teaching labor.
#StrikeReadySF is a developing group of politically radical organizers in UESF that centers solidarity, militancy, and social justice, and which has fruitfully participated in the contract campaign, helping to highlight key demands from our base, organize new members, and cohere a vision for our contract struggle in the context of a long-term fight to transform our unions and schools.
At the beginning of the school year, UESF held a members’ conference with Jane Mcalevey – militant unionist – about open bargaining, preparing for strikes, and building with community allies. Prior to this event, SRSF organized a rank and file meeting to prepare a core set of demands we intended on holding UESF accountable to. UESF held a day-long workshop at this same event with the purpose of preparing organizers for the contract campaign. In the words of UESF organizers, there is an attempt to move the union from a service to an organizing model.
The changes that the union leadership is promoting around the negotiations process include: inviting members to a campaign kick-off event to review the results of the bargaining surveys and to decide on key demands, minimizing the core bargaining team to allow more members to participate (although no more than 30 will be allowed throughout the entire process), and improving communication between the leadership and the membership. Our union president recently made a statement in which she apparently reflected on the mistakes UESF made in the past that caused it to lose members’ trust, and that the union was now making an honest attempt to rebuild that connection. Nowhere in the presidents’ statement was there talk of strike preparation, nor what our currently organized forces are and how the union plans to activate our entire membership. Informal estimates predict that about half of our school sites are not meaningfully connected to union organizing efforts. Especially in this new era of the pandemic and school closures, it will be imperative for unions and caucuses to fill this gap through strategic organizing efforts.
In mid-February, our district superintendent released a statement indicating that, due to a budgetary deficit, they would have to cut $26 million dollars from our schools, including layoffs of scores of employees. Immediately, conversations on social media and at school sites began around the significance of these cuts. In response, UESF called for a rally in front of the district’s central offices to challenge the district’s statement. The rally itself was the usual; UESF organized a march of a few hundred people with chants and calls to the district to end its cuts. It did not present any demands on the district; #StrikeReadySF presented a flier with tentative demands we developed with members, including class size reductions, student supports, and cost-of-living salary increases. During the rally, for the first time in twenty-four years, our members, led by SRSF, took the streets, forcing the union leadership to also take to the streets and lead chants. Once inside the district boardroom, #StrikeReadySF chanted “strike ready!” in which the other UESF members and audience joined in. The following day, the San Francisco Examiner published an article on the rally with the title “Educators warn of possible strike after district calls for budget cuts, layoffs.” The consistent work of even a few, well-organized militants in our union helped to place the strike on the agenda for educators in San Francisco.
In discussions around funding our underfunded public school system, school districts often say that it does not have the adequate funding from the state to not institute cuts and much less to provide us with more resources. While it is true that statewide funding is extremely low in California, in 41st place nationwide in per-pupil funding, it is also true that SFUSD uses about 60% of the funds it does receive in order to expand and fatten a district bureaucracy which does not contribute to our children’s growth and whose top administrators collect six-figure salaries. In addition, San Francisco is one of the wealthiest regions in the world, with technology and real estate industries forming millionaires and billionaires who pay a pittance in taxes in relation to the wealth they steal. Organizers in UESF must organize a strong local contract campaign to redirect district resources to our school sites and programs that benefit our students directly, including taxing the 1% in our area to do so. We do not have to play by the rules of the powers-that-be.
With that being said, it is imperative that we organize on a statewide level, as California Educators United has done, to tax the wealthiest Californians and provide billions of dollars in public services because it is true that, since the majority of funding comes from Sacramento, what we can achieve in local struggles remain limited. A productive local campaign, however, can prepare us to organize fruitfully with other locals around the Schools and Communities First 2020 ballot initiative in November with the purpose of obtaining the stated billions for schools and social services.
Our goal as socialists is to: 1) organize members to push for an emergency set of demands to address the COVID-19 crisis, 2) promote members’ participation in the official union processes to gain political experience, strengthen our campaign, and be in a position to challenge the leadership where necessary, 3) create independent spaces of rank and file organizing in order to hold the leadership accountable to a democratic process; and to transform UESF in the long-term into a militant, social justice union and 4) develop the most active and politicized layers in this fight into organized socialists who can amplify class independent, socialist politics.
San Francisco Educators Organize for Our Schools in the Midst of Crisis
Written by Yusef El-Baz