On the shoulders of giants

June 2007 - Let me tell you about two of the classiest people I know.

Two giants of UTLA—Sam Kresner and Bill Lambert—recently announced they are retiring. In the words of Sam in his letter announcing his retirement, he wrote, “To everything there is a season,” and now begins a new era in the lives of these men who have given so much to so many for so long.

I have had the personal pleasure of knowing these two gentlemen for 25 years. We’ve shared good times and some not-so-good times; we’ve had times of triumph and times of loss.

Since they announced their retirement, I’ve had to reflect on what it would have been like for me the past two years as president without these two UTLA icons next door and down the hall. I’ve had to rely on them for so many things, and they have always come through. Sam and Bill were UTLA even before there was a UTLA. They were among the union’s founding fathers and mothers, those dedicated activists who sweated, pushed, prodded, and basically willed UTLA into being.

Lambert and Kresner’s activism began the way it almost always does— in a school, in a classroom, with the hope and dream of a professional life for teachers that includes respect and empowerment.

Bill began his career in 1955 at Montague Street School and quickly became involved in the nascent L.A.teachers’ union movement, eventually helping to form the Los Angeles Teachers Association. Meanwhile, Sam—over at Vena Elementary— became an early staff member of the Association of Classroom Teachers Los Angeles, a competing organization. In 1970, the groups merged to form UTLA, and Bill and Sam soon became key players in winning new rights and protections for LAUSD teachers and health and human services professionals.

Many of you have worked side by side, arm in arm, with these two men. For those who haven’t, you need to know just what they have given UTLA and you over the years. Under their watch, we have earned:

• Fully paid health benefits overseen by employees (before, we had whatever benefits the District wanted to give us, and they weren’t great).

• The right to negotiate our salary and working conditions (before collective bargaining, the School Board could pay whatever it liked. Lambert liked to call it “collective begging,” in which we’d go hat in hand before the Board and plead for a raise).

• Protection from unjust discipline and the right to representation (before, a principal could fire a teacher for no reason).

• Class selection by seniority (before, the principal assigned classes, often arbitrarily).

• More local control through schoolbased management and shared decision- making councils (before, the principal made all decisions).

• The right to elect deans (before, the principal chose deans, often playing favorites).

Can you see how far we’ve come, thanks to dedicated visionaries like Sam and Bill? These rights and so many more are their legacy to us.

For much of his career with UTLA, Bill has served as our Director of Government Relations. You could travel the world many times over on his frequent flyer miles, as he flew to Sacramento, to Washington, and back to Sacramento again to convince legislators to support issues our members care about. Among Lambert’s contributions are the landmark bill that gave collective bargaining rights to teachers and his efforts on a long series of improvements to retirement benefits, stretching all the way back to 1973, when Ronald Reagan was governor. He has also made school safety a top priority and has passed bills mandating school safety plans and requiring districts to alert teachers about students’ behavioral history. For the past few years, his driving passion has been to repeal the unfair Social Security offset and windfall provisions, which can reduce a teacher’s retirement pay. (In fact, even with retirement looming, he’s still fighting the provisions—see page 9 for more on his petition drive.)

Sam has been UTLA’s go-to guy for everything involving contract negotiations and health benefits. Over the years he’s served the union in so many ways—as an organizer, grievance specialist, staff director, chief negotiator— that he’s truly become UTLA’s institutional memory. Whenever we made an improvement to our contract, Sam was there. Whenever we fought off a bad District proposal—like merit pay tied to test scores—Sam was there. He’s also been our rep on the all-important Health Benefits Committee, which has been instrumental in reining in health benefits costs and fighting off cuts to our package. The District keeps saying “cut,” and Sam keeps saying “no.”

As devastating as it is to lose these two men—and they certainly can’t ever be replaced—it does remind us that UTLA is a living, evolving organization. Who knows who’s out there right now—working in a classroom or the library or the nurse’s office or on the athletic field—who will be one of UTLA’s future leaders.

I look forward to a point in the near future when the UTLA family can gather to give tribute to these two men. I fear that our biggest problem will be finding a venue large enough to house all the people who want to come.

Please join me in wishing Sam and Bill a great, satisfying retirement, full of travel and time with their wonderful wives and families. They’ve certainly earned it. I feel, as I’m sure so many others do, past and present, that we walk on the shoulders of these two giants. When shall such great men appear again?

by A.J. Duffy, UTLA President