We Lost Prop 15: Which Way Forward for Educators and Our Unions?

Written by Yusef El-Baz
To the dismay of public sector unions and their supporters in California, Proposition 15 failed to pass. This proposition called for the amending of Proposition 13, the 1978 amendment that changed the funding structure of California’s public sector. Proposition 13 reduced tax rate increases to two percent annually, as opposed to tax rates proportional to changes in market value, for commercial and residential properties. In effect, this law drastically reduced funding for the public sector, causing a crisis that led to the laying off of tens of thousands of public sector workers.  SFUSD laid off 1,200 teachers after the passage of Prop 13 in 1978, sparking a strike – still our most recent strike 42 years later – which pressured the district to rehire some of these educators[1] This shift in school funding led California to drop precipitously from 5th to 47th place nationwide in per-pupil school spending.
A coalition of unions, education advocates, and religious groups formed the Schools and Communities First coalition to fight for Prop 15. This proposition aimed to tax the wealthiest Californians – those possessing commercial properties valued above $3 million – to provide approximately $12 billion per year for our starved public sector beginning in 2022, with 40 percent  of this money allocated to K-12 schools (including charters) and community colleges.[2]  It would have taxed corporations established  prior to 1978 that have avoided reassessment and tax increases as a result of Prop 13. It would not, however, have taxed California’s corporate sector equally across the board. For example, commercial properties established after 1978 stood to benefit from Prop 15, because these properties paid taxes corresponding to contemporary market value. This partially explains Mark Zuckerberg’s donation to the Prop 15 campaign.[3]
Furthermore, Prop 15 did not include tax increases on residential properties or small businesses. This was because organizers wanted to avoid pitting the state’s middle class sectors against public school advocates, a conflict that was successfully leveraged by the right-wing campaign to institute Prop 13 in 1978. While often framed as a mere ‘tax-revolt’, Prop 13 can also be seen as a white business and homeowner revolt against the advancement of people of color via public education. Most homeowners at the time were white as a result of California’s redlining strategies, which blocked people of color from owning homes and integrating into wealthy white enclaves.  High-density and racially diverse urban areas, such as the Bay Area and Los Angeles, with their high amounts of commercial and residential property taxes that supported a more robust social service system, were hurt most by Prop 13, and thus stood to gain the most from Prop 15’s increase in commercial property taxes.[4] Understood in the context of the end of the Civil Rights era, Prop 13 was a racist backlash against the gains of the 1960s and 1970s.
Prop 15 did  not call for a radical redistribution of wealth. For our public schools, not only would it not have filled the state’s current $54 billion budget deficit, it would not have  been fully implemented until 2026. As a result of the Great Recession which started in 2008, California lost approximately 30,000 teachers. The current economic recession and the consequent budgetary deficit mean that we could potentially lose another 50,000 school workers, starting in the Fall of 2021.[5] While the Legislative Analysis Office, a government agency dedicated to analyzing and advising the state on financial matters, announced an unexpected tax revenue windfall amounting to $26 billion for the next fiscal year – possibly mitigating the worst of this round of austerity – this, on its own, would not eliminate corporate Democrats’ strategy of imposing austerity on our schools in order to balance state budgets[6]. These revenues might, however, provide an organizing opportunity for unions to fight for this money and buy time for our unions to prepare for such a fight.
In the run-up to election day in November, Prop 15’s opponents – the mainstream media, the 1%, the politicians,  the statewide NAACP –  ratcheted up their campaign to defeat this relatively mild tax on the rich. Governor Newsom and other Democrats nominally supported the proposition, but provided no concrete support.  This is a common strategy among Democrats, who seek to appear “progressive” while doing nothing to actually fight for progressive policy. In many cases, such as in  Newsom’s strategy of offering juicy deals to California’s oil and fracking interests while mouthing progressive rhetoric on climate issues, Democrats actively work to undermine the same progressive causes that they supposedly support. California’s Business Roundtable, one of the state’s most powerful corporate committees, along with the Chamber of Commerce, began a fierce ad campaign that turned the tide against Proposition 15. In their advertisements, Prop 15’s wealthy opponents claimed that the new law would hurt small businesses and family farms, increase the costs of goods for consumers, and provide insignificant amounts of money for our schools.[7] Such predictions, unfortunately, are not unfounded. Corporations do place the brunt of tax increases on small businesses and consumers in order to maintain their economic dominance, a situation which requires further controls on corporate power in order to maximize the potential of laws like Prop 15.
An Organizing Opportunity Lost
The COVID-19 pandemic halted the grassroots door-knocking and face-to-face organizing necessary to build a broad movement for Prop 15 that could have effectively fought back against the corporations’ media blitz. In fact, the No on 15 campaign outspent the Yes campaign by only $7 million, a relatively small amount in the world of campaign finance.[8] The No campaigners understood that without the organized threat of mobilization, Prop 15 stood little chance of winning, thereby reducing the amount of money needed to defeat it. The CTA and CFT, the main California public education unions, never had  a serious plan to mobilize our communities to tax the rich, nor did they intend to have one. Their plan consisted of phone-banking and calls to vote. The fear-mongering and racist dog-whistling against funding public services for “undeserving” communities of color worked, particularly in California’s more conservative counties, ensuring the No campaign’s success.
Prior to the pandemic, a grassroots organization of school workers called California Educators United (CEU) was preparing members for a statewide mobilization in October 2020. CEU, inspired by the national teachers’ strike wave that began in 2018, understood that to pass a tax on the rich that amended  a law with as long history and powerful backers as  Prop 13, school workers and communities needed to take to the streets and shut down business as usual. Unfortunately, the pandemic forced us to play catch up and address the immediate needs of our schools and students as we moved to an entirely new teaching format. The pandemic also made it increasingly challenging, at times nearly impossible, to engage in the face-to-face relationship-building necessary to foment a statewide action on the level CEU had envisioned.
As a result, we were left without a rank and file-led statewide leadership. The strategy of the leadership of United Educators of San Francisco (UESF), like that of CTA and CFT, consisted of  traditional phone banking and ‘getting out the vote’ activities with members. There was no discussion of building a militant fightback for desperately needed school funding, no preparation for the thousands of struggling education workers and the communities we serve. UESF supported a host of local propositions meant to increase funding for our schools and communities, including Prop I (a tax on wealthy properties to fund housing and healthcare), Prop L (a tax on companies whose executives make 100 times  more than their employees), and, for our schools, Prop J (a regressive parcel tax that would generate approximately $50 million per year). While these can be valuable reforms, such an electoral strategy, in which a  union’s sole recourse is to get out the vote and depend on the capitalist electoral system to address the needs of our communities, remains a losing strategy.  Our union’s practice of fighting for flat parcel taxes, in which wealthy commercial properties pay the same as homeowners, continues through Prop J, framed as a replacement to the Prop G money still locked up in court.[9] While the money and support our schools received from San Francisco voters is welcome, it displaces the preparation we need to actually win a significant tax on the rich in one of the wealthiest areas in the world. To make matters worse, our union is no more powerful than it was before the election because it did not use this occasion to activate our members to fight.
Mass Action Gets the Goods – Not ‘Getting out the Vote’
The wealthy that dominate society use elections to legitimize their power over workers and oppressed people. They encourage us to vote and place our hopes in elections in order to keep us from striking or rebelling. Our union leadership has tailed along wih this strategy for decades, pushing us to vote for progressives who have no power to make changes or for a Democratic Party that is fundamentally committed to austerity, privatization, and the power of Wall Street. While the strikes led by Oakland and Los Angeles educators show the value of a union leadership willing to strike for teachers and students, our locals remain committed to a top-down model of unionism that stifles the rank-and-file initiative that can transform our unions towards a bottom-up, democratic model.
With a democratic and fighting union strategy, our union leaders would have coordinated with locals across the state to organize  a campaign in which site-based discussions, mobilizations, and political education could have effectively checked corporations’ attacks on Prop 15. We could have thus grown engagement in our particular locals and in the California Alliance for Community Schools (CACS), a statewide grouping of union leaders from the major locals in the state. Given that UESF, UTLA, OEA, and other state locals are preparing to align their contracts in 2022, rank and file teachers should look to create space within this body from which to support statewide organizing for school funding. Instead, the traditional top-down model of unionism prevailed, leaving our members largely disengaged, uninformed, and unprepared for the next fight.
While UESF members attended our town hall on our MOU in early June of this year, our co-workers largely stayed away from the last three general assemblies. This is a consequence not only of our tired minds and bodies, but also of a gaping lack of an organizing and fighting spirit from our elected union leaders. Had our general assemblies brought people together in order to build member participation around improving distance learning, ensuring a safe reopening of schools, or preparing to strike around our unnegotiated contract, hundreds more members would have been present.  After all, we live in a time of rising consciousness and  increased willingness to fight. A union leadership disconnected from its members, no matter how talented such a leadership is, cannot hope to wage a successful fight. In the alienating context of COVID-19, it remains indispensable for our union to be a fighting body that inspires members to come together to grow and strengthen UESF.
SFUSD schools are operating in the middle of a storm. Remote teaching leaves countless children unaccounted for and underserved. Unemployment, the lack of socio-emotional and health supports, and the overall precarity of working-class life under capitalism create an oppressive atmosphere which, as social justice educators have long known, plays a determining role in educational outcomes. Our district is pushing for a phased reopening in the middle of a raging pandemic due to pressure from dominant political and business interests, as well as the voices of some parents who are concerned for their childrens’ educational progress or else are being forced to return to work and need schools to function as daytime childcare. We’re also in the middle of a contract fight that could yet go either way, with significant implications for our school communities: our salaries, class sizes, support staff, health care, and community demands can be altered or improved, depending on our preparedness and willingness to fight, as well as the overall economic situation. While our leadership, following our members’ vote last May, is fighting to maintain the same conditions codified in our now expired (since June 2020) contract, SFUSD has demonstrated its intent to enact budget cuts against our already starved public schools.[10]
During our November assembly, our union president, Susan Solomon, put herself on record as stating that our union was preparing to legally strike in 2022 alongside other California educator locals. While there is little evidence of this preparation, it is valuable to the extent that it sets an expectation among our members that our union is actually preparing to fight. It will be up to rank and file union organizers, however, to make this rhetoric a reality. While the state legislature discusses what to do with the one-time $26 billion windfall from tax revenues, it does not fundamentally change our state’s dire economic situation. Austerity will still be the legislature’s  preferred strategy to “balance the budget.”  Our union needs to prepare its members, from the site level up to our leadership, to strike in order to not only stop any cuts against our members, but also to fight for as much of this windfall as possible. While we may not strike, being prepared to do so strengthens our position in bargaining. There is no substitute for the threat of a strike.
Prop 15’s failure, while not immediately relevant to the current budget fight, demonstrates that we must build a bottom-up movement, led by rank-and-file organizers, in close unity with our families and students, to address our greatest concerns. As educators in West Virginia did in 2018, we have the ability, if we prepare for it, to strike together and to win gains not just for teachers, but for all public sector workers and public school families. In order to counter the state’s divide-and-conquer tactics, we need to amplify “common good” demands – demands related to community well-being – such as a guaranteed income for working families for  the duration of COVID-19, a complete halt on rent, mortgage payments, and evictions, and the full defunding of police budgets to be re-invested in our schools. As the Movement for Black Lives and other struggles led by workers of color spark new rounds of resistance in the United States, we should be clear about the anti-racist spirit behind our fight: just as the decimation of public education exacerbates racial inequality, educators of color and communities of color will continue to be at the forefront of the fight for schools in which we can thrive and live as human beings.
Many rightfully breathed a sigh of relief at Trump’s loss in the presidential elections. With a Democratic presidency around the corner, we should be clear that neither party represents the interests of oppressed people, here or abroad. California, arguably the bluest of “blue” states, passed Prop 22 (bypassing a court ruling that defined rideshare app workers as full employees) and Prop 15 because of capitalists’ intransigent resistance to change. The teachers’ strike wave, the pro-Black rebellion, and the ongoing resistance to forced labor during a pandemic, among other key struggles, are producing a terrain of resistance which we must keep growing in order to win key reforms and to confront the crises of racism, poverty, war and climate change. Prop 15 was merely one battle in the class war, and the results show us that if we depend on the electoral system as our main strategy, we will continue to lose. The legislature remains the terrain of the enemies of public education and of working people in general.  Our power lies in our unity and our capacity to mobilize, strike, and transform our schools. Regardless of the outcome of Prop 15, we  have had no choice but to continue organizing at our school sites, communities, and union spaces, for a member-driven labor movement with the capacity and willingness to fight.

[1] https://reuther.wayne.edu/files/LR000524.pdf
[2] https://edsource.org/2020/quick-guide-proposition-15-the-proposed-split-roll-tax-on-commercial-property/640728
[3] https://www.protocol.com/moskovitz-jacobs-lawson-proposition-15
[4] https://belonging.berkeley.edu/blog-reforming-anti-tax-prop-13-racial-justice-issue
[5] https://www.dailynews.com/2020/06/20/union-to-teachers-brace-for-cuts-steeper-than-the-great-recession/
[6] https://lao.ca.gov/Publications/Report/4297
[7] https://noonprop15.org/watch-tv-ads/
[8] https://edsource.org/2020/californias-proposition-15-to-raise-commercial-property-taxes-in-very-tight-race/642888
[9] https://www.kalw.org/post/san-francisco-measure-j-parcel-tax-schools-and-teachers#stream/0s
[10] https://www.sfexaminer.com/news/breed-announces-parcel-tax-measure-to-fund-teacher-salaries/

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