In Coast Union Clash, Reform Ideas Not ‘Hot Buttons’ for Teacher Votes

By Ann Bradley — May 24, 1989 13 min read

San Francisco--Even as the national teachers’ unions are repositioning to play up their interest in professionalism and other elevated issues, a contest between the two here suggests that when the stakes are high, union politics looks much the same as it always has.

Teachers this week are anxiously awaiting the results of a mail-in ballot election in which the San Francisco/American Federation of Teachers is once again trying to take the right to bargain away from the San Francisco Classroom Teachers Association, a National Education Association affiliate.

And in this local battle for bargaining control and membership--the most important for both unions in several years--it has been bread-and-butter issues all the way.

Both sides are predicting a victory, and observers say the unusual volatility of the workforce here gives both claimants a good chance for one.

San Francisco’s teachers represent a unionization rarity, in that those who pay dues are evenly split between the two unions, while another third belong to neither one. And the recent history of representation in the district, teachers here note, is replete with allegiance-switching and an unusual number--five in 12 years--of decertification elections, as well as an uncommon level of dissatisfaction with both unions.

“I’m unaffiliated, because I got so disgusted with them both,” says Kate Dennis, a resource specialist for the district’s elementary schools who has belonged to each of the unions at different times. “The organizations, rather than represent the teachers versus the district, have fought each other.”

The sf-aft has advocated bringing shared decisionmaking and site-based management to the city in some of its literature. But critics say such structural initiatives are unlikely to be negotiated by a union representing, at best, one-third of the city’s teachers.

The issue that dominated the campaign was the collapse of merger talks between the unions, which the 3,900 weary teachers of the San Francisco Unified School District had hoped would bring an end to the constant jousting for control.

Some pressing day-to-day problems of the school district, including classes averaging 29 students per teacher and a shortage of substitutes, might have been solved earlier, disaffected teachers maintain, if the unions had devoted as much time to fighting for better conditions as they have trying to knock each other out of the city.

But union leaders say the stakes in San Francisco are far too high to capitulate for the sake of collegial relations.

“This is the last bastion, the last real battleground in California,” says Antonio Leon, a California Teachers Association regional representative working on the election here and a self-proclaimed union “zealot.” Though the aft controls most urban bargaining units, the nea has a 9-to-1 membership margin in California, its officials say.

“We don’t want to lose it, and they need to win it,” Mr. Leon says.

The sfcta, which recently moved to a spacious new storefront office, is running on its record.

President Judy Dellamonica, who has been in office since 1979, says the union’s first and foremost accomplishment as bargaining agent has been securing pay hikes totaling 84 percent since 1981. The average teacher in the city now earns $38,500, according to Superintendent Ramon Cortines.

The rival union, in a less positive campaign message, claims that teacher pay in San Francisco is not keeping up with the cost of living in the Bay Area.

Ms. Dellamonica, echoing the National Education Association’s cautious approach to site-based management and shared decisionmaking, argues that “you can’t wave a magic wand” and institute such programs.

“For instance, you certainly can’t say, yes, we will create site-based decisionmaking at the expense of what we’ve given teachers in the contract,” she says.

Sfcta telephone polls show little interest in school reform among the teachers, asserts Dan Threatt, a political consultant who works for the cta’s governmental-relations department and has been here since December preparing for the election.

“We were looking for hot buttons for the campaign, and it was obvious that wasn’t one,” Mr. Threatt says.

In a survey of 150 teachers, only 2 percent mentioned educational reform as being an important issue, he notes. In another, longer telephone survey of 300 teachers, the number who responded favorably to questions about site-based management and shared decisionmaking was “so small we didn’t finish the analysis,” according to Mr. Threatt.

“We found that teachers didn’t4know what that meant,” Ms. Dellamonica says of the reform buzzwords. “One person we talked to said, ‘It’s something that politicians talk about a lot, and if they really meant it, I’d be in favor of it.”’

“There’s some real skepticism out there,” she adds.

The rival sf-aft has attempted to make teacher empowerment a central plank of its platform, calling for democratically elected faculty councils in each school to give teachers a voice in the development of curriculum, programs, and instructional policies.

The local’s president, Joan-Marie Shelley, maintains that teachers “may not know all the [reform] jargon, but when you start talking about what those words are tags for, they certainly have an interest in it.”

“For years, the association has focused on salary and only on salary,” Ms. Shelley says. “A lot of other problems in the district have therefore gone ignored or been exacerbated.”

The sf-aft’s pre-election polling found that “the overwhelming majority of teachers in the district are in support of the kind of restructuring and teacher empowerment that gives them a voice at the school-site level,” maintains Norman K. Holsinger, an aft national representative and campaign coordinator for the local.

The poll avoided using the popular terminology for such school changes, he notes.

Under the current contract, each school has an Association Liaison Committee with which the principal must meet. In some schools, Ms. Dellamonica says, the committees have been a vehicle for discussion of reform issues, while in others, they have not been active.

Under the contract, only sfcta members can serve on the committees, which serve primarily to enforce the contract. Ms. Shelley says the idea of the committees serving as vehicles for shared decisionmaking is ''preposterous,” since the councils have “frozen out” faculty members who do not belong to the union.

The cta’s position is that “the issues have to be placed in the context of collective bargaining,” says Pat Wiman, a member of its board of directors also working on the election.

Meanwhile, a small group of teachers calling itself citrus, for Committee for Teacher-Run Schools, has begun holding meetings and gathering ideas to push for restructuring schools, according to Jonathan Frank, a member of the group and science teacher at Mission High School.

The citrus members are backing the a.f.t. in the election, Mr. Frank says, since it is perceived as more progressive on school-reform issues.

“I was hopeful that restructuring would become the apple pie and motherhood issue, and that the two unions would try to outdo each other on teacher empowerment,” he explains. “What I saw was lip service to the idea. You wonder what they’re more interested in--power to the teachers or the unions.”

Although the sfcta claims it is running a “nontraditional” campaign--continuing, that is, also to provide its day-to-day services as the bargaining agent--both unions have called out troops from their state and national organizations to help with the grinding task of organizing and running the campaigns.

They have flooded teachers’ mailboxes both at school and at home with colorful fliers attacking each others’ positions on specific issues, such as lack of preparation time for special-education teachers and the status of teachers in the district’s special childrens’ centers.

In addition to distributing such campaign staples as buttons and glossy promotional literature, the aft mailed a video highlighting the federation’s positions to every teacher in the district.

The video turned into a campaign issue when the sfcta printed a flier accusing the aft of spending more on the video than it did to support Proposition 98--a bill approved by voters last fall that is expected to increase school funding in California.

“Class Size, Not Costly Videos, Is Our Priority,” reads a flier that accuses the rival union of spending more than $12,000 on the tape and only $10,000 in support of Proposition 98. The sfcta points to the statewide effort on the part of the cta, which spent $7 million to get the measure passed, as evidence of its commitment to school improvement.

“Both organizations can talk reforms until we’re blue in the face, but to get classes down to 20 to 1 would take 800 to 900 teachers in San Francisco alone,” Mr. Wiman says. “The cta did something about it.”

The history of the teachers’ unions in San Francisco also has been a subtext of the campaign, both sides acknowledge.

The aft local was the district’s bargaining agent from 1977, when collective bargaining became legal in California, until 1981.

In 1979, when the school district announced plans to lay off 1,200 teachers in the wake of the tax-limitation measure known as Proposition 13, the union called a strike. Campaign officials for both unions say the memory of those six difficult weeks has remained with many of the district’s teachers, whose average age is 48.

In the wake of that turbulence, the nea affiliate successfully challenged the aft local in 1981. It has beaten back every aft challenge since then--but by only a whisker in 1986, when the margin of victory was 60 votes with 84 percent of teachers casting ballots.

The fact that so many teachers do not belong to either union annoys some devoted union members who believe the unaffiliated teachers are taking advantage of the bargaining agent’s grievance assistance and inservice training programs without paying their fair share in dues. But the sf-aft points out that 86 teachers belong to both unions, paying dues of approximately $700 a year instead of $400.

Despite the sf-aft’s attempt to drum up interest in teacher empowerment and other issues, during a lunchtime visit to McAteer High School recently, Ms. Shelley was not asked about the union’s views on school reform. Instead, the 34 teachers who snacked on the poppy-seed and lemon pound cake she took to the teachers’ lounge wanted to know why the unions could not reach agreement on a merger.

More than any educational or contract-related issue, the union’s failure to agree on a merger arrangement strikes fire with rank-and-file teachers. Their disillusionment with the unions is strongly expressed when they discuss their hopes for a merged union--similar to the United Teachers of Los Angeles--that could end the election turmoil.

“My feeling is that both unions should perish off the face of the earth if they don’t merge,” says Matthew Weinstein, an sfcta member who teaches mathematics and computer courses at Phillip and Sala Burton High School. Mr. Weinstein says he will carry the secret of which union he votes for “to my grave.”

“There seems to be a feeling that the aft will lower class size,” Mr. Weinstein notes. “School reform and the other things aren’t talked about in the lunchroom.”

“I stayed in both only because I thought this merger was going to come around,” says Marie Eisen, a member of both unions who is a reading-lab supervisor at Galileo High School. She was intensively courted by the sfcta during the campaign, Ms. Eisen says.

“It’s too bad the two organizations are spending all of this money fighting each other, when in actuality they’re trying to make conditions better for both,” she adds.

Superintendent Cortines agrees, saying, “If they are one, it makes it difficult for the district.”

But while the majority of teachers in San Francisco have indicated support for a union merger, conflict over how the merged organization would be structured killed the two-year negotiations last fall.

The association backed a plan in which members of both unions would join the sfcta, the cta, and the nea, and would be free to join the aft--and pay extra dues--if they desired.

The federation supported dual merger, in which teachers would continue to belong to their respective state and national organizations, but could opt out of one organization without a change in dues. Requiring teachers to belong to the nea while saying they could also voluntarily belong to the aft amounted to absorption, not merger, the local charged.

Despite their differences, the unions organized their campaigns similarly. The idea was to reach as many teachers face-to-face as possible.

The challenging union circulated a “double hard card” this year to gauge support for another election. The card included an election petition calling for the sf-aft to become the bargaining agent and a payroll-deduction authorization card that would enroll the signer as a member of the union.

The cards were signed by a majority of the 3,900 teachers, Mr. Holsinger says, declining to give a precise figure.

Both unions divided the school district, which has 148 schools, into regions. Campaign workers were assigned to work each region, and specialized teachers were given the task of talking to bilingual, special-education, and children’s center teachers. The children’s centers, a program of the San Francisco system since World War II, offer developmental instruction for preschool-age children of low-income families, as well as after-school care.

In the last weeks of the campaign, before the state Public Employment Relations Board mailed confidential ballots out on May 5, both unions were combing the schools to “assess” the votes of teachers whose affiliations still were not known.

Union leaders termed the assessment, which assigned each teacher a plus, minus, or question mark, an essential for the “GOTV,” or get-out-the-vote, phone-bank drive that began last week and was to continue this week. Neither side wanted to risk calling a supporter of the other union, so great care was taken to do the assessments carefully and accurately.

Mr. Leon of the cta, who planned to spend three weeks in San Francisco helping the union local, says he believes the best approach is to be straightforward.

“We’ve got you down as a question mark,” he tells a teacher approached in her classroom before classes begin. “Is that assessment still accurate?”

When the young teacher responds that she plans to vote for the aft, Mr. Leon thanks her and departs.

Just tracking down some teachers can be extraordinarily difficult, the campaigners say, adding that they often have to leave notes in mailboxes and return time and again to schools to buttonhole someone.

The personal costs of such intense campaigning are enormous, union members say, adding that no one involved in the election would be willing to trade defeat for less work.

“It’s a cause for me,” says Carolyn Doggett, a UniServ staffer who is running the sfcta campaign and putting in 80-hour weeks. “I believe in these teachers, and in this union.”

The local tapped the enormous resources of the state and national organizations for a bank of computers and extra personnel. Two of the teachers who canvassed the schools for the association have been sharing an apartment here since January, going home on weekends to see their families elsewhere in California.

The smaller sf-aft drew on the expertise of Mr. Holsinger to run the campaign, and had the use of an aft writer who drafted the campaign literature, Ms. Shelley said. Several retired members also volunteered their time for the election.

Both unions concede that the campaigns are enormously expensive. Ms. Doggett says she budgeted $50,000 for teacher release time alone. Robert Bates, the aft’s western regional director, who dropped in on the San Francisco office recently to discuss the campaign budget, estimates the election will cost the union “as much as several hundred thousand dollars.”

Officials of the sfcta, confident of another victory, plan to launch a membership drive May 30, after the votes are counted, to solidify the membership in preparation for contract negotiations, Ms. Doggett says.

The rival union plans to do the same. And “win, lose, or draw,” Ms. Shelley vows, the sf-aft will urge its rival to reopen the stalled merger talks.

A version of this article appeared in the May 24, 1989 edition of Education Week as In Coast Union Clash, Reform Ideas Not ‘Hot Buttons’ for Teacher Votes