When accepting her award for Women in Education, along with her colleague Theresa Sage, for their successful fight against the Rocketship corporate charter school chain, Morgan Hill Federation of Teachers President Gemma Abels gave a speech that brought the room to tears. She talked about the tough personal fight she faced thereafter — stage IV ovarian cancer with aggressive chemo treatments and attendant exhaustion.
“I knew I had more work to do in life,” Abels told the teary convention crowd. “Now I’m cancer free, and I had my last treatment on January 1.”
Abels — who has run a marathon and does kickboxing — said she knew something was wrong when she got winded walking from the library to her classroom. But, like many people focused on working for others, she put off going to the doctor. She repeated twice the symptoms of ovarian cancer — bloating or abdominal pain, loss of appetite or feeling full quickly — and she implored women to see their doctors if they have these symptoms.
Abels and then-local president Sage won a resounding victory that has become legendary, CFT Vice President Melinda Dart told delegates. Rocketship, a charter chain that touts “blended learning” — or more time in front of screens, an approach respected analyst Diane Ravitch calls getting poor children ready for assembly lines — petitioned to open schools in the semi-rural area near Silicon Valley.
But Rocketship didn’t count on Abels and Sage. The two had worked for years implementing dual Spanish-immersion and art and tech programs in the schools, and when the threat of a charter takeover came, they joined with administration, talked with parents and community members, and met with elected officials.
“I’m humbled to receive this award from an organization filled with women who could organize a revolution.”
— Gemma Abels, President, Morgan Hill Federation of Teachers
“Their message was clear,” Dart said. “Morgan Hill schools are not failing and not for sale.”
When the school board denied its petition, Rocketship turned to the County Board of Education, but in the end dropped its appeal.
Sage’s father had always told her if there was anything she wanted in life, she could be successful if she worked hard, and that came back to her during the fight with Rocketship. She thanked her mother, who was in attendance, for instilling union values. Her mother was a union waitress who taught her daughter never to cross a picket line and who made brownies for strikers when she was too pregnant to join them herself.
Sage also thanked her husband and three children for going to local and county meetings just to spend time with her during a fight that was so intense that Sage, who is blind, went through three guide dogs.
Abels talked about the fight against Rocketship as part of a bigger one against the excesses of corporate America and added it’s important to keep working on all sides — for Black Lives Matter, Fight for 15, and to elect officials who care about students.
Abels, who called herself “humbled to receive this award from an organization filled with women who could organize a revolution,” said no matter her struggles with her health, she has no plans to stop working with the union.
“When I was first diagnosed, I thought my chances of being at this convention were slim,” she said. “There’s a chance my cancer will come back. But there is 100 percent chance I will fight for a living wage for all workers and for education for all students to become informed citizens and revolutionaries.”