How the female perspective helps new local presidents succeed

Five women spoke to California Teacher about their first months as new presidents of AFT local unions. These leaders relate how their perspective as women shapes their approach to the challenges unions face.

Laurisa Stuart • Rescue Union Federation of Teachers

In the developing ranchlands east of Sacramento, Laurisa Stuart teaches fourth grade at Green Valley Elementary in the unincorporated community of Rescue, which was once a stop on the Pony Express.

Stuart gets one release day a week as president of her 180-member union. She needs be “extremely organized, a good listener, and able to multitask,” she says, and credits being the mother of four children, ages 6 to 11, with helping her hone those skills.

Stuart prioritizes increasing member engagement and communication. Union leaders meet frequently with site reps and administrators to resolve problems early. “We listen to members so we can articulate their concerns,” Stuart says, “and we launched a monthly newsletter.”

As a result, member participation has increased markedly. During contract negotiations, when asked, nearly 100 percent of the teachers wore union shirts, joined informational picket lines, and worked to rule. In one action, members wrote their concerns on postcards, filed into the K-8 district office, and presented them to administrators.

Stuart wants a more respectful, trusting relationship with the district. And the teachers’ insistence on having collaborative planning time, instead of “top-down, district-dictated staff development,” landed them an agreement with regularly scheduled shared planning time and a 4.5 percent salary increase.

Gemma Abels • Morgan Hill Federation of Teachers

To better connect with student families, Gemma Abels pays attention to both facts and feelings. “The whole family is affected by our working conditions,” she says.

Morgan Hill is the lowest paying district in Silicon Valley’s Santa Clara County, so salary and benefits are big concerns for the 410 teachers working in the unified district. At a May board meeting, members spoke about needing second jobs and living in single rooms because they can’t afford their own apartments.

Abels wants to engage parents on deeper levels to effect change. In January, the union sponsored a workshop on “growth mindset,” a learning theory that stresses work and perseverance — 50 parents attended. In April, the local hosted a Friends and Family Festival, featuring student music performances, a petting zoo, and community resource tables.

These activities deepened the involvement of more teachers in union life. What’s more, they supported Abels when she was diagnosed with and successfully treated for ovarian cancer — putting women’s issues front and center in the union.

Gloria Garcia • Early Childhood Federation

A passion for helping low-income families and a deep desire to help women understand “they can be everything they want to be” inspires Gloria Garcia to lead a union of 600 Head Start and child development workers in Los Angeles. The local represents teachers, instructional aides, family services specialists, clerical, maintenance, and kitchen staff.

“Women are strong and have the power to change their lives, and the lives of others,” she proclaims. Garcia knew poverty growing up in Mexico, is a survivor of domestic abuse, and of a brain cyst that hospitalized her eight years ago.

She watched Head Start suffer big cuts during the federal sequestration. Billions of dollars in services to poor families have not been restored. Teachers work double sessions with twice the paperwork and number of parent conferences for the same low pay. “We used to have time to teach and prepare lessons,” Garcia explains. “It isn’t fair to our children, or their families.”

In response, the local is developing long-range strategies. Leaders met with their supervisors and board members to explain the workplace realities. “They had no idea,” she says. “We gained their empathy and now we meet quarterly.”

And she’s not stopping there. Garcia wants to strengthen union identification among early childhood educators. She’s reaching out to colleagues across the nation to organize for professional recognition and identify members of Congress who will help restore the federal funding.

Kati Bassler • Salinas Valley Federation of Teachers

Women can be natural leaders who are able to work from a place of empathy and strength, says Kati Bassler. By calling on those traits, Bassler hopes to create in her union “a more positive culture and sense of community.”

She believes that listening to people’s concerns, building strong relationships, and following through on commitments are essential to foster member engagement. And the local union is doing just that.

This year, more members than ever attended and spoke out at meetings of the high school district governing board. And twice as many as last time voted on a new three-year contract that successfully addressed class size, collaboration time for teachers, and increased pay for adult school teachers.

In an agricultural region facing escalating housing costs and increased crime, teacher recruitment and turnover are also problems. Out of 780 teachers working in the district, 100 were new this year. Bassler wants to increase support for the new teachers.

By building the union and maintaining a positive labor-management partnership, Bassler hopes to boost the profession and gain more public support in the Salinas Valley.

Lita Blanc • United Educators of San Francisco

The president of this 6,200-member union of teachers and paraprofessionals wants to “strengthen it as a force for the defense of public education.”
As a bilingual elementary and literacy teacher of nearly 30 years — and also a mother of grown children — Blanc is acutely aware of women’s issues regarding balancing work and family.

She is accustomed to fighting for equal access to opportunities — including leadership roles in the union — and equal voice.
To hear more voices from the classroom, Blanc, who is on full release time, led listening tours during which officers and staff visited sites throughout the large unified district to hear member concerns.

One top concern was affordable housing. “Members can’t afford to live here,” says Blanc. “Many are giving up apartments to couch surf or moving to less expensive communities requiring long commutes.”

Among classroom concerns, lack of support for managing student behavior and over-testing led the list. “We’re fighting the Smarter Balanced Assessments and other district-mandated tests that require an insane amount of non-teaching time,” she said.

The union created new committees to address testing, housing, immigrant rights, and issues raised by the Black Lives Matter movement. “We want to engage educators not otherwise involved in traditional union structures.”

Blanc is an innovative activist fostering new ways for new times: “Union members want to stand up and fight for what they and their students deserve. We are opening up a variety of avenues for their participation.”

— By Mindy Pines, CFT Reporter