They learned about the best practices in the field. They heard from a legislator about the prospects for progressive legislation in post-recall Sacramento. And they enjoyed a personal visit from beyond the grave of dockworker and union hero Harry Bridges, leader of the longshoreman’s union and the 1934 San Francisco General strike, courtesy of actor Ian Ruskin, who performed his acclaimed solo show, From Wharf Rats To Lords of the Docks.

But for the 70 CFT members assembled from across the state over the November 22 weekend for the “Labor Education 101: In our Classroom, In our Union” conference, the focus was mostly on the future, learning about effective approaches to politics, legislation, and the classroom. The common theme: the labor movement is the heart and soul of democracy, and by participating in it CFT members become better educators and better citizens.

A Friday evening reception allowed some people to meet one another for the first time, and others to renew old friendships. Ruskin’s hour-long solo performance riveted the crowd, may of whom had never heard of Bridges before. Ruskin’s show movingly portrays one of the most important social activists of the 20th century, and conveys with humor and warmth the successes and personal foibles of the immigrant union leader whom the employers and government failed to deport despite numerous efforts for 20 years. Ruskin’s performance was rewarded with a standing ovation. The CFT members were also delighted to hear that thanks to the efforts of Shelley Kessler, leader of the San Mateo Central Labor Council, Ruskin’s show will be coming to every high school in San Mateo.

Gene Mullin was a last minute stand-in on Saturday morning for the scheduled keynote speaker, Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg. Rising to the occasion, Mullin, a freshman member of the Assembly from San Mateo and South San Francisco, told CFT members that the Assembly Democratic caucus in Sacramento will be pulling together behind their newly elected speaker, Fabian Nunez. He urged his audience to work hard to pass the Budget Accountability Act on the 2004 March primary ballot.

Conference-goers also heard from Ron Lind of the United Food and Commercial Workers, who explained what was happening in the massive southern California strike and lockout of 70,000 supermarket workers. While confident that the workers would prevail and keep their health benefits, he warned that the companies’ agenda was aimed at eliminating health benefits as traditionally enjoyed through collective bargaining agreements. “The employers are trying to participate with Walmart in a race to the bottom” of the economy, Lind told the crowd.

The morning workshop on “Labor Legislation and Politics” allowed the participants to learn more about the role of labor in defending the rights of workers through political and legislative action, and how they can help out. The “New Member Orientation Program” workshop outlined effective mechanisms for helping new members understand what it means to join a union — especially the need to be active. The workshop leaders reported lively discussions in both.

Lunch featured the presentation of a film-in-progress, The Land of Orange Groves and Jails, by Los Angeles filmmaker Judy Branfman. The story of her great aunt’s court case in the 1920s, which was instrumental in eroding the power of the anti-union Criminal Syndicalism Act, was leavened with humor and the obvious warmth of the relationship between niece and aunt. Its staunch defense of civil liberties has obvious reverberations with the present day, and many in the room said they would like to use it in their classrooms.

The afternoon workshops consisted of demonstrations of cutting edge social studies curricula (with breakouts for elementary, middle school, high school and community college). The workshop attendees received free copies of labor studies curricula and materials such as the Yummy Pizza Company, Trouble in the Hen House, and I, Tomato. They also were the lucky first recipients of the brand new California Labor History Map, which will be coming soon to secondary schools around the state.

The conference was co-sponsored by the CFT Training Department and the CFT Labor in the Schools Committee, and received high marks from its attendees.

By Fred Glass, CFT Communications Director