The following was a presentation at the Feb. 20, 2021, Reds in Ed webinar.
Afternoon fellow educators, my name is Frank Lara and I am a public-school teacher of 10 years in San Francisco’s historic Mission District. I am also on the Executive Board of our union, the United Educators of San Francisco, a 6,500-member union that includes teachers, para educators, nurses, librarians, psychologist, counselors, and social workers.
Thank you to the comrades with Reds for Ed for hosting this great gathering. It is important for organizers to hear about what is happening throughout the country in public education. While there are many differences from city to city and district to district, the fact that we are governed by the same political elite and singular socio-economic system means that we face similar challenges and struggles.
Prior to letting you know where we are in our union struggle in SF, I want to lay out some context. San Francisco is considered a bastion of liberalism. The city is ruled by one party, the Democrats. Despite its supposed “left-leaning” politics, there is no genuine independent left political party. Because of this, the Democrats locally have both a centrist-right-wing faction and a more progressive wing that is always willing to capitulate and compromise when push comes to shove. San Francisco is also one of the most expensive cities in this country and has several dozen billionaires within its city limits.
San Francisco is both a city and a county, which means that we have a mayor and a Board of Supervisors managing the city. Historically, the mayor’s office has been bought and paid for by the city’s elite. This executive office carries a lot of power in appointing people to city positions and moving around funds in the city’s budget, which amounted to $13.7 billion last year alone.
The legislature, the county’s Board of Supervisors, consists of 11 members. The progressive wing of the Democrats has fought hard to win over a majority of these seats. The magic number seems to be seven because this makes the Board veto proof over the mayor. After each election, these seats vary, but in the recent period the progressive wing has managed to maintain a majority, which has not made the mayor or the elite too happy.
Finally, we have the Board of Education. The seven-member board governs the School District and is independent from the city’s governing bodies. However, there has been a trend of School Board candidates using this position to launch their political careers in the city. This is reason enough for the mayor to want to influence its politics.
An all-out attack
I offer this context because all these components are intermingled in the political situation we have today around the “reopening of schools.” While reopening of schools has been a nationwide debate, in San Francisco it has morphed into an all-out attack on public education, unions, and anyone standing in the way of the centrist Democrats.
It is obvious to anyone following politics in SF that my union, United Educators of San Francisco, carries a lot of influence. Our endorsed candidates are almost guaranteed to win the School Board seats, and we play a major role in the Supervisor elections. Voters in SF trust educators and they often vote to approve any measure that supports public schools. It is also important to note that SF is one of the few urban districts with almost no charter schools. We also have some of the best working conditions in California, with a strong contract won by a very experienced bargaining team. All of this is due to the strength of the members and the movement.
So it should come as no surprise that when an opportunity came to attack us, the assault was vicious and swift.
We began the 2020-2021 school year as almost all school districts, being praised for our monumental achievement of radically transforming education to become completely online. “Crisis Distance Learning,” which is what we call online teaching in our Memorandum of Understanding, meant all educators had to completely retrain themselves for a once-in-a-lifetime crisis.
Before, I rarely used Google Drive and avoided Google Classroom like the plague! Now, I was learning how to use green screens, Seesaw, Nearpod, Flipgrid, Padlet. … If you have no idea what I am talking about, imagine what it would feel like if you had a couple of weeks to learn all of this and adapt the tools to your teaching!
Given the scale of the change, the focus of the union was representing and supporting members through the crisis. This crisis we must continue to emphasize was caused by the pandemic and exacerbated by the complete failure of those who govern and the economic system to meet the basic safety needs of people.
At the bargaining table, the union and District worked on finalizing language around meeting State requirements, evaluations, special-education requirements, and so on. The negotiations were slow because, again, everyone was focused on trying to keep the ship from sinking. At the same time, around October, SF was beginning to see dramatic drops in the cases of COVID-19. All the headlines celebrated the achievements of the City to manage the pandemic. This led to the genius idea of completely reopening the whole city and pretend to move on as if the virus wasn’t still ravaging poor and working-class communities, especially people of color.
Riding this wave of enthusiasm, toward the end of November, the School Board, preemptively and in a short-sighted manner, kicked into high gear the plan to reopen schools in January. Those of us following the trends began raising warning flags. After the “Thanks-taking” break, COVID-19 cases exploded and it was correctly assumed that the upcoming holiday season would mean it was only going to get worst, much worst. But when the major unions of the District joined together to form a comprehensive health and safety proposal that took into account the impending flare-up of cases, suddenly, we, the workers, became the enemy.
From the Board of Ed. to the Board of Supes, to the District, which up to this point had really shown their complete incompetence at the bargaining table, all threw our union under the bus. That is when the mayor and the Chronicle, the major paper of record in SF, both representing the interests of the ruling class, smelled blood.
Headline after headline blamed educators for the declining mental health of children. Workers were being selfish in demanding health and safety. We were supposedly at fault for increasing inequities by demanding schools stay closed, which of course was not true. Justified anger and frustration from families and staff were weaponized in propaganda that framed the tragedy of the pandemic as the fault of unions being lazy and not wanting to work. The situation became further sensationalized and politicized when the city’s district attorney decided to sue the District to force it open and is now wanting to sue my union for wanting vaccines!
Democrats just as anti-union and anti-worker as the Republicans
This is happening as we are killing ourselves trying to make Crisis Distance Learning the best possible for our children. As educators visit homes to drop off materials, set up material distribution centers, spend nerve-wracking hours in adapting lessons and planning new ones, set up “go-fund me” pages for our families who lost relatives, were evicted, or lost a job, the elite who failed us now decide to blame us for their gross negligence. The whole moment was baffling and it shows that Democrats are just as anti-union and anti-worker as the Republicans. They can even be more effective because they claim to be liberals, anti-racists, pro-human rights, and so on.
But we should know that the main reason why the political elite decided to find a scapegoat among the most organized workers is because they have concluded that they are no longer going to pretend to solve this crisis. The majority of large cities are run by Democrats. During the Trump era, they could blame the lack of federal support. They said nice things like “we will follow science.” They closed businesses and asked folks to wear masks. They bankrupted cities and communities but gave sympathy crumbs to some.
All the while, huge tech companies, huge real estate companies, all of which dominate the local economy in SF, continued to make billions in profits. They made sure to not address that contradiction. In SF, they actually tried to beg the wealthy to donate funds! With the incoming administration, which is also making the opening of schools a priority, they no longer had to pretend they stood up for the workers. They wanted to go back to their normal, where the wealthy thrived and the poor were left to die.
When we look at what actually happened to the workers in SF, the humane façade of liberalism and the Democrats is completely exposed. In SF, the most expensive city in the country, you have low-wage workers trying to survive brutal levels of inequality. It’s exactly as the saying goes with regard to COVID-19, a precondition to the virus is your economic status!
As in the whole state of California, in San Francisco, the vast majority of infection cases were found among Latinos, the backbone of low-wage labor. Facing overcrowded housing, where families live in living rooms, day laborers live in single beds for eight-hour shifts and not able to work from home or stay home once sick, Latinos in San Francisco made up 54% of COVID-19 cases. It was insulting and infuriating to see the gentrified sections of the Mission District, the largely Latino neighborhood, completely open for bars and hipster fun, while terrified families looked out the window with their children wondering why they couldn’t go out.
An explosion of folks trying to survive on the streets
Another glaring example of the brutal inequality was the explosion of folks trying to survive on the streets. Homelessness, which was a crisis before, has skyrocketed and entire blocks are covered with folks trying to survive the rains and cold as thousands of empty apartments are sitting idly because techies are abandoning the city and real-estate firms buy up any housing to turn over a profit. Seeing capitalism play out in this manner is mind-numbing.
In the past couple of weeks, the union has been able to regain its footing and is mobilizing members to fight back. Just recently, we helped organize a 100-car caravan that drove to the mayor’s home demanding that she “make our schools and communities safe.”
As we have said since the beginning of the school year, educators desperately want to return and we can return but it requires that those governing our lives pay for safety and health. This last part is conveniently omitted by folks at the Chronicle and by the mayor.
As our union is prioritizing the vaccination of educators and finalizing the negotiations around how “in-person” instruction will look, we need to start exploring how to rebuild the unity with families and the community who are continuing to struggle during this pandemic. We cannot go back to a normal that meant the rich got richer and the poor were left to die. The unions, along with our families, must demand that our needs be met! We must demand fully funded quality public schools, universal health care, childcare, and access to housing; we must come together to demand a new normal that prioritizes the needs of people and not profit. Wall Street stocks don’t represent the health of our communities.
The lesson for comrades and fellow educators is that we must build power and strengthen our unions beyond just our members. In public education, defending the rights of workers doesn’t just include the staff, it includes the students, youth and families.
As educators trusted by families with their children, we have an amazing opportunity to build solidarity and trust that make us a formidable force in demanding this system meet our needs. We are going back to underfunded schools, schools with not enough staff to meet the socio-emotional and academic needs of students who have faced a historically difficult year. The fight for public education is just beginning and our unions must lead the way!
Photo: Liberation Staff