The Grapes of Wrath written by John Steinbeck powerfully told the story of one family’s challenge to survive the devastation of the Great Depression of the 1930s. It’s a story that continues to resonate eighty years later. As they begin their journey to California, the Joad family asks Reverend Casey, who in the film version is played brilliantly by the great American actor John Carradine, if he would like to join them. Carradine, with his deep voice and wide eyes responds, “I’d like to. There’s something happening out there in the west and I’d like to try to learn what it is.” 

Well, something is happening in this country and while we may not be in the situation the Joads confronted in the 1930s, we are at a crossroads in our history and what we do at this convention and how we prepare for our future can have a great impact on what comes next for our union, for our families and for this country.

Labor and education unions face an onslaught of attacks. With the exception of California, education budgets continue to be cut and schools in districts across the country are being closed. Charter school operators are opening non-unionized schools as a way to circumvent union contracts so they can continue to treat their teachers and classified workers as at-will employees. Our courageous sisters and brothers at unionized charter schools lead the way in reminding us all that educators, as do all workers, have a right to be in a union.

In California, the people continue to support public education. They voted to put more money into our schools and they have twice elected a governor and a state superintendent of public instruction who have been our allies on most education issues.

Four years ago, we talked about the need to pass Prop 30, a merged tax measure that combined our Millionaires Tax with the Governor’s initiative. Prop 30 has added more than $6 billion dollars a year to the state budget after years of devastating cuts.

Now we have to extend it. The measure for which we are gathering signatures will raise from $5-11 billion a year according to the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office. This measure, called The Children’s Education and Healthcare Protection Act, will continue to ask wealthy Californian’s to pay a bit more in personal income tax while eliminating the sales tax increase in the original Prop 30. For all practical purposes this is our Millionaires Tax.

While we wanted a permanent measure, the polling clearly showed us that voters liked the “temporary” nature of the measure and so this initiative will extend this more progressive part of Prop 30 for 12 more years.

We need to remind our members and the public what happened to public education during the Great Recession. Year after year, K-12 district’s slashed their budgets, and thousands of classroom teachers and classified workers lost their jobs. In higher education, community colleges lost thousands of seats and the increased costs for the CSU and the UC systems were increasingly put on the backs of students. Our abysmal standing as one of the lowest states in per pupil spending got worse. California’s public school children and education workers suffered.

We have to pass this extension and we will need all of you to be involved. We can’t go back to the pre-Prop 30 days. We are gathering signatures and we need everyone’s help to make it happen. We have petitions to get out to every one of our members and supporters of public education.

Let me mention the status of our Prop 13 reform effort, called “Make it Fair.” First and foremost, we will continue to be part of the labor-community coalition working on Prop 13 reform and we are committed to making this happen. Unfortunately, our polling of voters showed that trying to pass this measure now would be difficult, if not impossible and a failure would be a setback.

We should not be surprised that California voters are frightened by the notion of reforming property tax. No matter how clear we are that this is only about commercial property and how the property tax burden has dramatically shifted to homeowners, voters have been misled to believe that property tax reform would hurt them.

However, if we are going to substantially transform our public schools, we have to reform Prop 13. Requiring commercial property owners to pay property taxes based on fair market value could generate as much as $9 billion a year.

So the Make it Fair coalition continues with the CFT, SEIU, CTA, our Millionaires Tax partner California Calls and many other community organizations. We will continue to educate Californians and work to put this essential reform on the ballot either in 2018 or 2020.

But our relative successes in California cannot blind us to the fact that rich and powerful forces and their allies in government continue to attack us and promote an education agenda that hurts our students.

A couple of weeks ago, we began the appeal of the Vergara court decision that threatens to end seniority based on objective criteria and due process rights for teachers, and to replace these education code statutes with a merit system. I attended the presentation before the Court of Appeals and while one never wants to get overly confident about these things, our attorneys were masterful and they felt at least two of the three judges understood the issues at stake and our arguments.

Our attorneys’ made clear that there is no connection between the five provisions being challenged and the firing and placement practices of local districts.

Not only was the initial court ruling not grounded in evidence but it is also clear that the motivation behind this lawsuit is to undermine educator rights. If we eliminate seniority based on objective criteria and replace it with a merit system, as the Vergara proponents would prefer, teachers and students will suffer.

I think it is instructive to note who was there in support of the Vergara claimants: former LA Unified Superintendent John Deasy, Ben Austin, founder of Parent Revolution and former Congressman George Miller, now a lobbyist for Pearson, the controversial testing and publishing company.

Our press conference featured former United Farm Workers leader Dolores Huerta — a genuine civil rights leader, our attorney Michael Rubin, ABC Federation of Teachers member Gaby Ibarra and parent Martha Sanchez.

But let’s remember that the Vergara lawsuit is a massive distraction from the real issues that confront public education and our communities. Their attorneys have made this case about civil rights — or so they say. Of course, we know better than anyone that race and class play a decisive role in shaping a child’s future. Rather than find solutions that speak to the profound problems of poverty, the billionaires funding this case and their PR apparatus continue to bog us down in the bad teacher narrative.

At a time when we face a massive shortage of young people wanting to get teaching credentials and we face a shortage of tens of thousands of teachers, devising ways to fire more teachers is a diversion from the real issues confronting public education. How we retain teachers and make the teaching profession attractive is the challenge before us. While more lawsuits, like Vergara, will only continue to add to the toxic environment that has enveloped public education and caused veteran teachers to retire as soon as they can and has driven away prospective teachers.

In Los Angeles, billionaire Eli Broad, also a supporter of the Vergara lawsuit, has pledged to spend millions of dollars to open hundreds of unregulated charter schools in LAUSD, while Republican presidential candidates vilify education unions as the cause of the so-called education crisis in this country and the demise of the American empire. Maybe we are even responsible for Donald Trump!

Rather than be disabled by these threats, we must seize this moment to organize and become stronger. As the convention theme so powerfully says, we must Activate Labor for Justice!

While the death of Justice Scalia may have delayed, for the time being, the decision on Friedrichs, we can’t afford to let down our guard or believe that we won’t face additional threats. Three Supreme Court judges are in their late 70s and early 80s, which underscores the tenuous nature of the political balance on the court. We have been saying all along that Friedrichs was only the beginning. California has the distinction of being the incubator for quite a few of the more than 20 anti-union court cases currently in the pipeline. This is not the time to get complacent about the attacks against us.

Our opponents want to tie us up in the courts and that’s a problem. We can’t rely on the courts to change the balance of power in our favor. But to back away from these critical cases, like Vergara and our lawsuit directed at the ACCJC, would also be a mistake.

That’s why we are asking you to approve a special assessment to create a fund that would go to supporting these cases and any subsequent lawsuits that threaten us. If we are going to be more than the “backwater union” as we were lovingly referred to in 2012, then we have to be involved in these cases! We believe this is important. Without the approval of this assessment, we cannot continue to support these legal efforts at a level necessary to defend our rights. It is just that simple.

Fighting in the courts, however essential, is not a substitute for our organizing work.

We must continue to do the work we have started to reinvigorate our union. As the most organized sector in our society, we also have a responsibility to provide leadership and direction at this critical moment in our history. The issues of wealth disparity, racism, immigration, climate change, militarization both at home and abroad, worker rights and corporate control of the political process have all become central themes in this presidential election. We have to be engaged in finding solutions. Sitting on the sideline is not an option! We must Activate Labor for Justice!

We may not have all the answers but we know how to organize and fight back. Several years ago, the Illinois state legislature wanted to cripple the power of the Chicago teachers union. So the legislature passed a law that required a 75% authorization vote by the teachers to legally approve a strike. Rather than letting that law curtail their power, the Chicago teachers union organized their members and the community, got a 90% strike authorization vote and pulled off one the most militant and successful strikes in recent years. While they are still under attack, the Chicago teachers have begun to change the political landscape in their city and were instrumental in the recent mayoral election that seriously challenged incumbent Mayor Rahm Emmanuel.

A couple of years ago, the Morgan Hill school district was being threatened with the expansion of charter schools by corporate charter school operators. Rather than resign themselves to the loss of more students and unionized jobs, the Morgan Hill Federation of Teachers organized their members, reached out to parents and stopped the expansion of Navigator and Rocketship charter schools.

AFT Local 6262, Part-Time Faculty United at College of the Canyons represents 600 adjunct instructors at two campuses in Santa Clarita. Under their new leadership, the local set a priority to win paid office hours for adjunct faculty. They began an online petition campaign and set a goal of getting 160 signatures. Over the course of several weeks, they managed to get over 2,000 signatures. These signatures from members, full-time faculty, classified staff, students, and community members. As a result of their organizing efforts, the local won paid office hours for their members. In addition, they reached out to non-member petition signers and increased their membership nearly 20% over the course of this campaign. They continue to build on their success by engaging members and non-members alike.

At City College of San Francisco, the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges moved to revoke the college’s accreditation. The City College of San Francisco Faculty Union, AFT Local 2121 with the assistance of the CFT and the AFT have waged a multi-pronged fight to restore the college’s accreditation. As you know, we participated in a rally yesterday to elevate this issue even more and Tim Killikelly, president of 2121, and others were arrested.

Because of our relentless, ongoing organizing there is now broad consensus that the ACCJC must go, and the destruction they have caused to our community colleges must end. AFT 2121 has become one of the most active locals in the CFT and they are now gearing up for a strike in the spring.

El Camino Classified Employees, Local 6142, President Luukia Smith is leading her local through our Building Power program. They have created a plan and are moving to develop twelve new leaders and organizers, talking to colleagues to increase their membership to over 80% of the unit and build a site structure to support their contract campaign and community engagement. Their commitment to talking to members and mobilizing the local is impressive.

Los Angeles has also been at the center of the fight over the direction of public education. The billionaires and market reformers have attempted to establish LAUSD as ground zero for their agenda.

UTLA struggled to find its footing but the current leadership, with the assistance of the CFT, AFT, CTA and NEA has worked with it members and made remarkable gains.

The results have been nothing short of amazing. UTLA leadership has made more than 2000 school site visits. They have run a successful contract campaign, with the theme, “The Schools LA Students Deserve,” won a reduction in counseling loads, class size, the maintenance of health benefits and a ten percent salary increase over two years.

More than 80% of the members voted on the contract proposal, with more than 90% of those, voting to approve. In the process, 1000 agency fee members became full members and most recently the leadership, again with the support of the affiliates, moved a dues restructuring that saw a more than 80% ratification vote for a significant dues increase and a full merger of the organization. This was the largest membership vote on a referendum in the history of UTLA. Come September of this year, we will add more than 20 thousand new members to the CFT.

The battle in Los Angeles is far from over. Eli Broad has committed to spending millions of dollars to eviscerating the district by opening up hundreds of charter schools and he is now underwriting reporting in the Los Angeles Times.

But let’s remember; the billionaires and millionaires may have the money, but we have the people — when we organize them. UTLA is working hard to build ties to the community, training teachers to connect with parents, and continuing the work of organizing their members. They are Activating Labor for Justice!

What these locals have done, and many of you in this room are doing through our Building Power campaign is unionism 101. You are engaging your members. You are cleaning up your data information, getting up-to-date membership cards, expanding your COPE programs, holding regular meetings, organizing steering, recruitment and political committees, improving your communication with members, refining social media work and systematically improving every aspect of your union work.

This is the work that is essential to building strong locals. Sisters and brothers, if this is not what your local is doing then we need to work with you to make this happen. As Sandra Weese, our organizing director is fond of saying, “this isn’t rocket science; it’s just hard work.”

When the focus of much of our work in the past has been to service our members or spend hours at the bargaining table, shifting to an organizing focus presents challenges. Let me underscore why this move to an organizing focus is so important. Organizing our members is the foundation of our work. It builds power and gives us the strength to win at the worksite, at the bargaining table and beyond. Without it, we may win some short-term victories but like a building without a solid foundation, the walls and roof will not sustain and neither will our locals nor the CFT.

This doesn’t mean we won’t file grievances and certainly bargaining is essential. But organizing our members and our locals so that grievances and negotiations are the product of organizing, rather than stand-alone activities, means that we must put our limited staff time into helping locals get organized.

Just as organizing our locals is absolutely essential, our union must be seen as leading the fight for the kind of quality public education that excites our members, and inspires students, parents and the community.

We must build on the confidence the public already has in their child’s teacher, aide and school custodian and we must develop the connection we have to every community. We do that by not only saying we do a good job under difficult conditions, which we do, but we must also make a vision for public education central to who we are and what we do.

An education that every child should have, not just kids from affluent families. We want a public education system that makes college education available to all students. We want an education that inspires!

When we launched our Campaign for Quality Public Education several years ago, we understood that we needed to wrap our organizing around a vision of public education that keeps our members engaged and gives us a platform to build ties with parents, students and community groups. A vision that sets the bar high; establishes demands and excites our members and the community about what public education could and should look like.

We needed a vision that expressed our deep understanding of the elements of a quality education: a vision that was not top-down, but was shaped by the bottom-up input of our members, our students, their parents and the community. Only in that way could we go on the offensive by organizing around a compelling vision of public education rather than defensively responding to attack after attack.

Friedrichs, Vergara and the myriad of lawsuits, anti-union legislative efforts, the corporate underwriting of charter schools, the deepening teacher shortage crisis, the continued scapegoating of educators and the crisis of higher education affordability scream out for developing such a vision. Locals like Chicago, St. Paul, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and Jefferson Elementary have made this a cornerstone of their work. By going beyond narrow bread and butter issues they are helping to shape the narrative around public education in their cities. 

We launched our quality public education campaign with modest success. Our legislative effort called Healthy Kids, Healthy Minds called for putting a mental health professional and nurse in every school and opening school libraries before and after school. While we were well intended, we ran into significant roadblocks that prevented us from moving our legislation.

We have to learn from our previous effort and recommit ourselves to creating this vision. I can’t stress this enough. We are part of the public sector. We depend on the public’s support for education. If the public does not see us promoting a vision of public education that convinces them it is worthwhile to commit to public schools, the public will see alternatives like vouchers and charter schools as reasonable. We saw this in Milwaukee, and we are seeing this in urban districts across the country. Two million students in the nation, and four hundred thousand in California, now attend unregulated, unaccountable charter schools and the vast majority of the certificated and classified workers in these schools have no union representation.

At the national level, the AFT is broadening and deepening ties with key community organizations through the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools. AROS has been organizing around a progressive vision of public education that challenges the market reformers. Last month, over 1000 schools across the country participated in walk-ins where educators joined students, parents, community members and even administrators in a show of solidarity. The AROS alliance brings together the AFT, NEA and key civil rights and community based organizations across the country.

Their next action is a walk-in scheduled for May 4th. This is a great way to highlight issues in your district and to build support with your members and the rest of the education community. I am hoping many CFT locals will want to participate.

It is critical we create a vision of public education that inspires our members and the education community. That’s why I am excited to announce that we will be re-launching our education initiative, with the name The Education Californians Deserve. We are also creating a non-profit organization that will help us engage community groups, work with parents and students and help us move this campaign.

To make this effort successful, we need to work closely with our locals to get our members and the education community involved. We then need to develop a campaign that uses our vision to help locals run contract campaigns, get pledges of support from elected leaders, moves legislation and initiatives and ultimately builds a broad consensus that this is what educators, students, parents and community want for California’s public schools.

We can’t put this on the shelf to work on after we have completed our Building Power work. This must be integrated into our work because if we don’t develop this campaign, we will not win the battle for the hearts and minds of the public school community. It has happened elsewhere where public education is no longer the primary way children are educated.

Just as the public sector is under attack more generally, there is no guarantee that public education is here to stay.

We must defend the concept of public education while being sharply critical of a system that doesn’t meet the needs of working class children nor children of color. A system that, despite our best intentions, is underfunded, under-resourced and lacking in the enrichment, counseling, and other elements of a progressive education.

We have to be on the side of those who say we can be more. We must be more and our students and those who work with them have a right to something better!

These conventions are typically when we gear up for elections; so let me say a few words about the presidential election. I am an unabashed Bernie supporter and hope he gets the nomination. That someone who calls himself a socialist could be viable mainstream candidate for president means, as Reverend Casey said, there is something going on out there.

No candidate in recent years has been able to raise the issues of the growing wealth and income disparity that Bernie has. As someone who has had to shell out thousands of dollars to deal with my own health care issues because private insurers take huge profits off the top, I know that Medicare for all, or single payer, is the only reasonable and fair health care system.

At the end of the day, whether its Bernie or Hilary Clinton, we cannot allow the Republican Party to reclaim the White House. We need not have any illusions about the Democratic Party and we must continue to build the labor movement and progressive movements in this country.

But sisters and brothers, the Republican Party has become a far right party dedicated to jingoism, anti-choice, turning back the clock on voting rights, building walls at the border and fanning the flames of racism. When the leading Republican candidate, Donald Trump can say positive things about Benito Mussolini and claims to not know David Duke, a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, and can’t disavow white supremacists, then we face a threat unlike any we have seen in many years.

In the 1930s, Father Coughlin became a household name for using radio to speak to the American people. He began as a supporter of FDR and the New Deal only to disavow Roosevelt later. Coughlin became a virulent anti-Semite and an open admirer of Hitler and Mussolini, using populist language to prey upon people’s’ fears. Donald Trump is this generation’s Father Coughlin.

Come November, we must work to deny the Republicans the White House. The next president will appoint one, maybe more Supreme Court Justices. I don’t want my daughter or any child living in a world where a majority of right wing Supreme Court judges are making decisions about women’s right to choose, health care, the environment, affirmative action, union rights, and the power of the wealthy and corporations to buy elections. That’s one of the reasons we are going to have to work hard to elect a Democrat to the White House.

Finally, no matter whom we elect, our job as a union will still be to organize our members, strengthen our locals, forge ties to our community allies and build the social movements that give us real power. That’s why sisters and brothers, we must Activate Labor for Justice.

Thank you.