Frank Lara is an Executive Board member of UESF and the Union Building Committee representative at Buena Vista Horace Mann.
After many months of negotiation, the bargaining team representing the United Educators of San Francisco reached a tentative agreement with the San Francisco Unified School District. The new contract, if approved by the membership, will include an 11 percent raise over three years, a couple of bonuses, extra compensation for para-educators and substitutes, additional healthcare discounts for dependents and many work condition improvements around Special Education and new educator training. A one-page summary of the tentative agreement can be found here. This contract, while not being able to solve all the inequities being faced by our members in hyper-capitalist San Francisco, represents a positive achievement for a strengthening union.
After the economic crash of 2008 and the Democratic Party push to defund public education, UESF was forced to give big concessions in order to prevent layoffs. However since then, the union has continued to strengthen its organizing model, reached out to more schools and developed new leaders, pushed for major funding sources at the state level, elected politicians who are held accountable to our members and informed families of the need to support public education. The results can be seen in the victory at the last bargaining session in 2014 where a 15 percent raise along with many important new work conditions were won. If this contract is approved, the total raise over six years will be 28 percent. We will also continue to have huge support from the public as we fight for more resources to stabilize staffing and deepen the quality of public education.
The tentative agreement is the result of many hours of deliberation by the Executive Board and dedicated members of the bargaining team. It is the result of great organizing by our members who attended “back to school nights,” marched on May Day, rallied at 555 Franklin St. (the District headquarters), signed petitions and reached out to families throughout San Francisco. It is also an acknowledgement of the absurd inequity faced by educators who are unable to live where they work, are commuting more than two hours a day, paying half their income for shared bedrooms, living in kitchens and sometimes in vehicles just so that they can provide schooling to our students most in need of an experienced professional. We in the Party for Socialism and Liberation are voting “yes” on the tentative agreement knowing that the main task is to build a strong union that can fight the many injustices faced not only by educators, but also by our families who often have far less resources and privileges than our UESF members do.
The district and the city are the problem
The failures of capitalism and those that manage it are strikingly clear, especially in San Francisco. Considered to be a beacon of liberalism and impenetrable Democratic Party rule, S.F. has one of the worst levels of inequality of any major city in the U.S. Its absurd housing cost ranks the top in the nation and among the top 10 in the world. Mayor Ed Lee, a complete lackey for the wealthy, has allowed for the complete take over by tech and real estate industries. The S.F. Controller’s Office reported that the tech handout known as the “Twitter Tax Break,” cost the City $34 million in 2015 alone. As stated in the SF Chronicle, “ [The tax break] increased by about $30 million from 2013 and is five times greater than the amount of taxes companies avoided in the two previous years combined.” Numerous S.F. Chronicle articles have also pointed out that a household needs a yearly income of $150,000 or more to be considered “middle class” in the city.
While this may sound absurd, more absurd is that even “techies” who make this amount claim that this is not enough!
No educator can afford a single housing unit on their salary. While not the lowest salary in the Bay Area, the housing to salary ratio in San Francisco exacerbates the difference. As the figures continued to make global headlines, the District sat idly by for several years as droves of teachers left year after year, an average of 12-15 percent to be exact. Whether referred to as “Central Office,” “555 Franklin,” or the “suits and desks folk,” the District added several new highly-compensated upper management positions and created special projects that were ultimately dropped. They incentivized highly capable and experienced educators to leave the classroom to focus on training instead of finding ways to train new educators at school sites. Our members, who deserved to be better compensated for their expertise, could have been used to alleviate the stress on new and overburdened staff members. The District did this knowing that it was not sustainable as dozens of classrooms remained without educators year after year.
The blame for the current moment lies squarely on the District and the city. We, as a union, on the other hand, have fought tooth and nail against their agenda every step of the way. Educators, who are keenly aware of these facts, are angered and have correctly channeled that anger into union organizing. From forming coalitions that prevent the evictions of working class folks, to passing legislation for public housing monies, to informing families of the need to prioritize schools sites and not bureaucrats, to defending immigrant rights in the era of Trump, to demanding police accountability, the United Educators of San Francisco has stood proudly on the side of the working class.
Union organizing for revolutionaries
The union knows that all of the aforementioned accomplishments are not enough. They are not enough. At Executive Board meetings, General Assemblies and individual Union Building Committee meetings, the message remains “the struggle continues.” In order for that struggle to continue, we need member participation and commitment from a whole new layer of young, enthusiastic, fiery educators. As we help carry out this task, we also need to have a clear understanding of what the objective and potential of a union is. The PSL has a simple mantra for union organizing: “If you are not in a union, join one. If there is no union, fight for one. If you have a union, make it a fighting one.” Under capitalist society, a union is indispensible and must be defended as an institution of workers’ power.
While we may have critiques, we know that without a union workers are weak in the face of the bosses’ assaults. Differences and mistakes in tactics are common when an active union is constantly confronting contradictions in the struggle for meaningful reform. Clearly, reform is not revolution, but it must then be understood within the confines of reform. An 11 percent raise is not enough to prevent the hemorrhaging of quality educators. The limitations lie in the very real budget constraints faced by public schools in a state where per-pupil funding is ranked 46th in the nation. Eliminating the reactionary Prop. 13 law, taxing downtown businesses, tech industries and especially real-estate corporations and demanding government
bodies fund education and not incarceration and police, all are areas of work that can guarantee long-term funding for education,
However, as revolutionaries we know the problem of the gross inequality in S.F. is ultimately rooted in capitalism. The solution for the PSL is socialist revolution. This must remain the larger objective in order to not get lost in the ever-thickening forest of reformism. But how can we achieve such a revolution without workers’ power? A strong union, rooted in the struggle for working class reforms is essential to that power. UESF has over 6,000 members and includes para-educators, security staff, counselors, nurses and social workers. It is influential in local politics, often forcing a more progressive agenda in a city dominated by Democrats. Its Executive Committee has many dedicated and experienced members who are committed to social justice and the defense of the most vulnerable in our communities. We must continue uniting and strengthening our union. This can only be done by example and clear principles of comradely respect, solidarity and unionism.
UESF has made huge strides in organizing the base and reaching out to younger members to develop new leadership. The PSL has been active in this process and will stand alongside the workers in their fight for justice as they build the power necessary to overhaul the decrepit system entirely. La lucha sigue, “the struggle continues.” This tentative agreement must be approved and the dedicated work of our union and the Party must continue.