The Fight of our Lives

Bargaining Survey, School Board elections, and fighting the Trump/DeVos agenda: Your participation is key to winning.

February 10 marked the one-year anniversary of the passage of the Build the Future, Fund the Fight (BFFF) initiative. Last year, I spent a lot of time in our BFFF phone-banking room, often with member stalwarts like Vince Fazzi, a health and human services leader. Calling our members, having great dialogues about the need for the dues increase, full merger, and Group Legal Services, in support of the strategic plan, seems like only yesterday.

February 17 marked the one-year anniversary of the first nationally coordinated Walk-Ins for Public Education, organized by the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools (AROS). UTLA has proudly led the way in ensuring AROS’s development as a national network over the past few years. On February 17, 2016, more than 300 schools and 20,000 educators, youth, and parents participated in Los Angeles, showing love for our public schools and articulating what our schools need. Wonderful educator-organizers like Claudia Rodriguez at 49th Street School, Jennifer Ritz of San Pedro High School, and Helen Piltzer of Leichman Special Education Center led the way in the Walk-Ins. February 17 helped shape our ongoing vision in the movement for Community Schools.

The first month of the Trump administration has brought voucher bills, anti-union “right-to-work” bills, the travel ban, stepped-up ICE raids, the confirmation of an anti-public education privatizer billionaire as Secretary of Education, a scramble to get new anti-collective bargaining Friedrichs-like cases to the Supreme Court (Yohn v. CTA), and more. Civil rights, funding for basic needs, and the very existence of unions are under attack.

The first month of the Trump administration has also shown how right we were, collectively as members of UTLA, to pass BFFF and invest in ourselves and our capacity to fight. We are literally now in the fight of our lives, and, without the passage of BFFF, we would have entered that fight severely crippled. It has further shown how right we were, from the UTLA Board of Directors, to Claudia to Jennifer to Helen to many other leaders, to lead in strengthening AROS as a national organization. The fight against the Trump/DeVos agenda is, by its very nature, going to be national in many ways—and AROS is a structure we need.

These national developments affect our students, schools, and classrooms. And, while we must engage at many different levels, our local work at our schools and in L.A. is constant.

 

Change starts locally: School Board races & bargaining survey

At this moment, two of our greatest local priorities are the LAUSD School Board elections and preparing for successor (or full) contract bargaining. It is crucial that every single one of us supports the School Board campaigns of Steve Zimmer and Imelda Padilla. These elections will decide who is on the School Board when that body votes on our health benefits, our contract, and how the board will handle the Trump/DeVos agenda. In this issue of the UNITED TEACHER, and in the weekly News to Use emails, there are a variety of opportunities to get involved, or you can go to www.utla.net/news/phone-bank-canvass-zimmer-padilla for details. We need you! As always, we approach campaigns knowing that supportive elected officials are key to our success, but our political work must be embedded within a broad and deep social movement-building strategy that can hold those officials accountable.

It is also crucial that you participate in the bargaining survey to inform our priorities as we head into the successor (full) contract campaign, beginning in April. We know that fighting for salary increases and protection of active and retiree health benefits are top priorities and essential foundations—we are 100% committed to fighting for those. The bargaining survey will help us figure out additional priorities alongside salary and health benefits. You can find a link to the survey in the weekly News to Use emails, or you can go to www.utla.net/news/bargain-power-survey. We need you to take it! It will not take you a long time, and every voice needs to be heard.

Now, back to the School Board. As you know, our UTLA-endorsed candidates for School Board are Steve Zimmer and Imelda Padilla. I am honored to have been connected to both of them over the years.

 

Steve Zimmer: Authentic commitment to public education

I have known and worked with Steve Zimmer for more than 20 years, and I couldn’t be more thrilled to pound the pavement for him as a School Board candidate.

In the early 1990s, Steve and I crossed paths a few times in activist circles and as we became early critics of Teach for America. I was teaching elementary school in the Compton Unified School District and Steve was at Marshall High School.

Our courses ran parallel for a few years. Steve’s continued work in the classroom, and increasingly in the counseling office, at Marshall brought him into a key leadership role in the immigrant rights movement in 1994, in the era of Governor Pete Wilson and Prop. 187. Steve stood unapologetically with students and families, and their civil and educational rights, and organized educators to stand explicitly with immigrants.

My classroom teaching in Compton, and, by the mid-1990s, my transition to teaching in LAUSD also led me into the immigrant rights movement. I spent my summers working with labor unions in Guatemala and El Salvador.

In 1998, Steve and I worked together intensely in the campaign to support, expand, and improve bilingual education and to defeat Prop. 227, which threatened to cripple bilingual education programs. The organizational vehicle for the work was On Campus, a grassroots group that Steve founded and that included an ever-broadening set of educators, students, parents, union activists from across the labor spectrum, academics, community and clergy leaders, and more.

Every weekend, we would meet in Steve’s apartment in Echo Park, or sometimes in the offices of unions representing the workers who are, many times, the parents of our students, such as the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union (now UNITE-HERE).

Through this organizing, I was struck by Steve’s intense work ethic and his commitment to the day-to-day work in classrooms, in communities, and with people of all different backgrounds. Perhaps most of all, I was struck by Steve’s spot-on assessment that the fight for student, parent, civil, and immigrant rights is inextricably connected to the rights of educators, and respect for educators and their unions. He was dogged and consistent — educators can teach best, and work with students and families best, whether on a Monday morning in the classroom or in the movement for immigrant rights, when they have their rights respected, when they are compensated well, and when their families are taken care of with good health benefits.

Steve and I continued working together in a variety of contexts over the next years. Much of his time was focused on continued teaching and counseling at Marshall, and on helping to create an incredibly innovative center, the Elysian Valley Community Services Center, which we can use to help us continue to shape our vision of our Community Schools model.

As he has fought for the rights of our students, of educators, and for respect for our union on the School Board since 2009, it is no surprise that Steve has become public enemy No. 1 for Eli Broad, Richard Riordan, and the California Charter Schools Association.

I couldn’t be prouder to have worked with Steve Zimmer for so many years, and I couldn’t be more thrilled that he is an endorsed UTLA candidate for School Board.

 

Imelda Padilla: Powerhouse youth advocate

I am equally thrilled that UTLA, in Imelda Padilla, has endorsed a powerhouse youth advocate and community organizer for the School Board District 6 seat — and I am honored that my path has also intersected with hers.

As I transitioned from teaching in Compton to L.A., I took a couple of years to focus exclusively on community organizing and the Urban/Regional Planning master’s program at UCLA. Through this work, I got very involved in the struggle over the Price Pfister faucet manufacturing plant in Pacoima, in the East San Fernando Valley. In 1996, the plant was found to be introducing large and illegal amounts of lead into communities, both through its faucets, and through its factory’s production methods. The workers, many of whom I got to know well, and many of whom were parents of our students in East Valley schools, started an intense organizing drive. Our righteous twin demands were that the faucets, the plant, the production process, and the community be cleaned up, and that Price Pfister, as the largest employer in Pacoima, stay in the neighborhood and keep its jobs there.

The employer was unresponsive. Price Pfister announced that it would move a substantial amount of its production to a region with lower environmental standards and lay off 300 workers in Pacoima. Moreover, the impact of the lead introduction into the bodies of the workers, and into the broader community, went unaddressed.

Though I wasn’t able to contribute as much to the struggle as I would have wanted, I vividly remember being in late-night meetings at churches, community centers, and workers’ homes in Pacoima, planning out strategy, which eventually became a nationally watched hunger strike. It was ultimately unsuccessful: the 300 layoffs in 1996 were followed by a complete shutdown of the Pacoima Price Pfister plant in 1997, and the company did not pay for community clean-up. But many in the community found their voice through the struggle and kept working for positive change.

Over the years, I stayed in touch with some of the worker and community leaders in that struggle. And, about 15 years later, in 2011 and 2012, I started to hear from them about an organizer in those same Pacoima neighborhoods named Imelda Padilla. She had grown up in neighboring Sun Valley and was with an organization called Pacoima Beautiful, organizing with a base of parents, educators, youth, and community residents. Her organizing was addressing, in a wonderfully proactive way, exactly some of the same concerns I had become familiar with in Pacoima over a decade earlier: green space, access to health care, land use, and toxin clean-up.

I followed the work of the organization with interest. Over the years, Imelda’s name kept on popping up, with close contacts of mine among educators, and in the labor and community organizing worlds raving about her talents, specifically as it related to working with youth and educators in schools. In her role as co-founder and lead organizer of the Adelante Hombre Latino Youth Summit, and as a board member of Girls Today, Women Tomorrow, she has helped thousands of young people in the East San Fernando Valley, and she built a reputation as someone intensely respectful of educators, educator unions, and the public school environment. Imelda’s sister is a teacher and UTLA member, and she credits her own success to LAUSD teachers and UTLA members at Roscoe Elementary, Byrd Middle, and Polytechnic High.

I couldn’t be prouder to have contributed to some of the same movements in the East San Fernando Valley as Imelda Padilla has, to have her as a UTLA endorsed candidate, and to be walking the streets and working the phones for her.

 

Bargaining survey: Setting our shared priorities

In reflecting on my 22 years teaching, I think about the issues that I and my co-workers might have prioritized in a bargaining survey, like the one UTLA is currently conducting. Fighting for salary increases and protecting active and retiree health benefits are absolutely essential foundations. On top of that, reducing class size, increasing staffing, promoting a community school model, advocating for a school-wide discipline plan supported and implemented effectively by administration, voice for educators in professional development, less top-down testing and paperwork mandates—these are all priorities I could see my colleagues and I, together with active parents, working to achieve.

Our bargaining survey is your chance to let us know your priorities, in addition to our commitment to fighting for salary and benefits. Our bargaining platform will be made more powerful if all of us take the survey. Please do that before the end of February. You can find a link to the survey in the weekly News to Use emails, or you can go to www.utla.net/news/bargain-power-survey.

There is no question that we live in challenging times for public education locally and nationally. And, the everyday joy of our work can be interrupted by tragedy and sadness, as happened with the sudden passing of beloved educator and chapter chair, Ramona Gedney, from Montara Avenue Elementary.

We will grieve. And, we will continue building the movement we need, that our chapter chairs and members know that we need. The key, as we have learned, is building power at the grassroots, school site level, emanating up to all levels — local, state, and national. We are doing this. I am inspired by Vince Fazzi, Claudia Rodriguez, Jennifer Ritz, Helen Piltzer, Steve Zimmer, and Imelda Padilla, all of whom have fundamentally shaped, and will even more deeply shape, the educational terrain through their grassroots work. I am inspired by the memory of Ramona Gedney. I am inspired by all of you. Together, we can and will continue the fight for the Schools L.A. Students Deserve. Let’s keep on moving!