1980s: Teachers Unionism Comes of Age


The social setting for teacher unionism in the 1980s resembles its early years in the 1920s. Despite a superficial prosperity, the gap between the haves and the have-nots widened, and previous social commitments to helping people on the bottom of society were eroded by those in power. Appeals to free market ideologies allowed corporate interests to wield uncontrolled command over the rest of society. Under the benign gaze of Coolidge-Hoover/Reagan-Bush, regulatory agencies were undermined or abolished; personal freedoms lost ground; corruption in high places went unpunished; and organized labor weakened before political and economic attacks. Once more, unions have been forced onto the defensive; institutional mechanisms forged by workers’ struggles across half a century to ensure some ground rules for cooperation through collective bargaining (National Labor Relations Board, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Public Employee Relations Board) have been subverted by politicians and bureaucrats serving corporate power.

If the Reagan years have not been kind to organized labor, civil liberties and education, it is all the more remarkable that teacher unionism has managed not just to survive but to thrive. One of the few bright spots for labor in the 70s and 80s, in fact, has been public sector organizing, not least with a half million teachers joining labor through the AFT since 1960. Consequently, the growth pains for the CFT have been of a different magnitude than in the 20s or even the 50s: no one has had to worry that teacher unions might be driven out of existence. But with the settling of the question of collective bargaining, long deferred problems have come to occupy center stage. In some respects the most critical of these is the challenge to define teaching – finally – as a profession.

Collective bargaining elections dwindled in frequency following the ‘election years’ immediately after passage of the Rodda Act. Still, several important elections took place.  In 1982 the CFT suffered a devastating defeat when UPC, against the combined opposition of CTA, AAUP (American Association of University Professors) and CSEA (California State Employees Association) lost the California State University election by a total of 39 votes in a bargaining unit of 19,000 statewide. What these organizations shared, in the merged CFA (California Faculty Association) was an aversion to AFL-CIO affiliation, and they played this card heavily throughout the campaign. All the more ironic that, in order to prevent a decertification campaign by the still-formidable UPC, CFA affiliated directly (through merger of CSEA with another AFL-CIO union, the Service Employees) with the California Labor Federation. On this level the CFT lost the war, but achieved a long-sought objective: to affiliate the professors of the state university system with organized labor. While the Academic Professional unit (fifteen hundred employees) chose AFT in a separate election, the CFT ended up losing its several thousand UPC members.

The CFT made headway in another realm of higher education the following year. In 1983 the librarians at the University of California chose the University Council UC/AFT as their exclusive bargaining agent; and in 1984 non-senate faculty at UC also elected the UC/AFT. The addition of these two statewide bargaining units brought full union representation to all levels of public education in California. The Council and its constituent locals had represented UC employees in a non-bargaining agent status since 1963. Although several hundred sympathetic full-time professors continue to belong to AFT anyway, senate faculty at UC remain outside the collective bargaining framework. With that exception, the 80s witnessed the institutionalization of collective bargaining in virtually all sectors of public education in California; and AFT locals achieved bargaining rights for at least one major unit in each sector.

During the implementation of collective bargaining the CFT gradually increased its attention to professional issues. This did not represent a change of opinion for the organization. The CFT’s position through the years on professional issues held firm to a single principle: that until the basic legal and contractual protections were in place for teachers no one could speak seriously of teaching as a profession.

Short shrift has been given in these pages to all that the CFT accomplished for the field of teaching itself, for innovative pedagogy, and the creation of sound educational theory and practice. Barely mentioned are the myriad QuEST (Quality Educational Standards in Teaching) conferences organized and run by the CFT and its locals for the past 25 years for the teachers of California. Even before QuEST, in the early 60s the CFT established its Curriculum Councils, which helped inspire the national AFT to create QuEST. Little attention has been drawn here to the innumerable articles devoted to these topics in the CFT’s publications, and written by CFT members for academic journals in dozens of disciplines. Even as the fierce picket line, legal and legislative battles were being waged for teacher rights, the work of a profession in process of formation was carried forward by the union.

Meanwhile the early 80s heard a chorus of conservative voices call for schools to go “back to basics”, blaming various teacher unions, contemporary curricula and lax standards for declining test scores and high dropout rates. Republican administrations decried the state of the schools, but slashed education budgets, since, according to New Right wisdom, “throwing money at them” ‘was part of the problem in the first place. The mobilization against public education, while seriously damaging the ability of teachers to teach and students to learn, did have one positive outcome: it helped focus public attention on the plight of the American education system, and in this way provided an opening for a reexamination of the role of teachers. Fortunately the discussion occurred at an historic moment when teachers could participate as equals in the debate, thanks to the growth of teacher power through their unions. As a result, in much the same way as the struggles for teacher rights and collective bargaining could be said to have defined the 60s and 70s for the CFT, the closely related issues of achieving professionalism and education reform have shaped the events of the most recent decade.

Working to tear down the artificial barriers between “bargainable issues” and other professional matters, the national AFT and the CFT in California have been able to reframe the education reform discussion in ways that include teachers and paraprofessionals as decision-making partners. National task forces (such as the Carnegie Commission) and state bodies (like the Joint Legislative Committee to Review the Master Plan for Education) examining education reform issues were careful to invite the full participation of teacher union representatives. Proposals for more rigorous entry standards and professional certification procedures have been coupled with acknowledgement of the need for higher pay and more control by teachers over the learning environment. In this way the ideological assault of the New Right against teacher power and public education has been blunted and partly turned around.

A significant reason for the successes in this war for education waged in the schools, the media and government is the new-found unity being forged between teachers and their co-workers in public education. One of the fastest growing sectors of the AFT in this period is its paraprofessional group, several thousand of which live and work in California. Conscious of the changing nature of the CFT, and concerned that its classified members possess the democratic tools to participate fully within the union, the union created the Council of Classified Employees in 1982.

An implication of this change is that the quest for teacher professionalism has to take into account non-teachers. This is, at first sight, a paradox: it is through the transformation of an AFL craft union into a CIO-style industrial union that the movement towards professionalism is taking place. Recall that in the late 1930s the central debate raging in the national AFT was whether to remain in the AFL or join the newly formed CIO. In the 80s, belonging to the united AFL-CIO, the teachers union recognizes that professional development, career ladders, and the restructuring of the classroom involve both teachers and paras. The union is making sure, through legislation and contract language, that all its members move together towards change.

All of these changes have been transpiring within an overarching context of fiscal uncertainty. School finance problems didn’t begin with Proposition 13. In 1971 SB 90-opposed by the CFT alone among education organizations – set a limit on the amount of tax money that could go to education. This was the first blow to public education funding in a long, unequal brawl, during which Prop 13 was merely the most effective blunt instrument. The CFT, and even a united front of teacher organizations, could not fight back without assistance.

After Proposition 13 the new political reality necessitated formation of close working alliances between erstwhile opponents in the legislative arena. This was especially urgent since the economic agenda of the New Right’s assault on schooling, served by the Governor of California and a former Governor in the White House, was closely linked to ideological attacks on all public services. The CFT joined in broad coalitions with public employee unions and education groups to strategize and act to defeat the continuing stream of regressive tax legislation and to create and support legislation and ballot initiative petitions seeking to equitably fund education.

Shortly after taking office, Republican Governor Deukmejian delivered a rote “back to basics” speech, justifying his inadequate education budget. In a California Teacher editorial in January 1983, Teilhet responded to Deukmejian by pointing out the CFT is “…also committed to the “Back to Basics” movement but we possibly have a different definition of what is ‘basic’ to quality public education.” He went on to list such ‘basics’ as lower class sizes, better school management, allowing teachers to teach instead of act as security guards, appropriate allocations for learning materials, etc. He concluded, “The Governor has forgotten another one of the basics: society will get the schools it pays for.”

The Governor’s forgetting took the form in 1983 of cutting nearly a quarter billion dollars from the community college budget – approximately one sixth of the total. As a result of compromises worked out by a coalition including the CFT, $100 million was restored, but at the cost of imposition of $50 tuition in the formerly free system. The Governor made clear his intent to balance the budget on the backs of the workers, minorities and poor students who comprise a majority of the community college student population.  Robert Gabriner, who just the month before was elected to replace Virginia Mulrooney as Community College Council president, received a baptism of fire, leading the CFT’s intense lobbying efforts in January of 1984 to restore funding. The CFT opposed tuition until the bitter end, and the reason why became clear immediately upon its implementation: enrollment of students in community college campuses situated in working class and minority districts plummeted.

By mid-decade the Community College Council represented a majority of CFT membership. The Council matured, having grown from a group of locals trading war stories at its inception to a major player in the community college system. As with the CFT fifteen years earlier, the Council and its membership had expanded to the point where it needed a full-time president for effective leadership. In 1983 Gabriner became the Council’s first paid president.

In another of the continuing battles against anti-public services initiatives during the decade, the CFT joined with other public employee unions in 1984 to defeat Proposition 36, written by Prop 13 co-author Howard Jarvis. This would have eliminated billions of dollars in tax revenues to the state, mostly from the wealthy, including large amounts for schools. The coalition achieved its success through a dawning recognition on the pan of significant segments of the public that Prop 13 may not have been worth it. A similar sensibility pervaded the streets of San Francisco in July 1984 on the eve of the Democratic Party convention, when teachers marched with their union brothers and sisters in a massive labor parade of 100,000, protesting the effects of four years of Reaganism on working people. The CFT was well-represented by Bay Area locals and others who came from as far away as San Diego. Raoul Teilhet and AFT president Albert Shanker marched among the teachers’ union contingent.

Teilhet stepped down at the 1985 CFT convention after leading the union for 17 years, the longest tenure of any CFT president. He was remarkably suited to guide the organization through its period of greatest change and growth – a political leader in politicized times, and a dedicated organizer able to help charter dozens of locals. He over saw the development of a modern union field staff and hired and worked with the CFT’s legislative advocate in Sacramento, Mary Bergan, who over the years has been consistently voted the top lobbyist in education by her peers. As the first teacher elected a vice-president of the state AFL-CIO, Teilhet strengthened the ties between the CFT and the labor movement, ensuring that when the CFT speaks, it speaks with the voice of nearly two million AFL-CIO members in California. He led the union through much of its ‘ACLU for teachers’ period, the fight for collective bargaining, the intense bargaining agent election campaigns, and into the education reform era. He was – and as the current Administrative Director of the CFT, remains – enormously popular with the union membership. No members called him “Mr. Teilhet”, or if they did they learned quickly; he is simply “Raoul”, the president who was always there on the picket line or testifying on behalf of teachers in courtrooms or legislative hearings.

The CFT leaders who were worried about the organization becoming like the bureaucratic, remote CTA when Teilhet transformed the presidency into a full-time position voiced a legitimate concern, one that needs to be monitored by every union continuously. When a strong leader heads an organization the possibility always exists for undemocratic practices to creep in and take root. But Teilhet’s presidency demonstrated that in this case the worry was groundless. A hallmark of the CFT is that opposition groups have always had access to convention microphones and the freedom to organize for their positions; in other words, the union has been and remains a model of union democracy. Teilhet served that spirit well, understanding the impossibility of fighting for social justice without an organization run according to the same principles itself.

It was for these ideals that his membership kept electing him president for 17 years. As the April 1985 Community College Perspective reported in its article covering Teilhet’s emotional farewell speech,

“Teilhet reminded convention delegates of the roots of their organization: frustrated classroom teachers. Its opponents, he said, are equally clear: management, conservatism, poverty and racism. The crowd gave a standing ovation and many reached for their handkerchiefs as he ended his remarks by recalling both the pride and humility he had felt over the years each time he said: “I am Raoul Teilhet, President of the California Federation of Teachers.”

The convention elected a new president, Miles Myers, the CFT’s senior vice president under Teilhet. In Myers the CFT once more found a president well equipped to steer the union into yet another period of transformation: the present era, when full professionalization is on the agenda at last. Myers began teaching in the Oakland School District in the late 50s. Serving in practically every seat on the Executive Board of Local 771, he became a vice-president of the CFT in the late 60s. In 1971 he became the CFT’s representative in Sacramento during the crucial legislative session when CTA switched its position to favor collective bargaining, and the CFT stood alone against the Stull Act. He edited California Teacher for 15 years, from 1970 until his election as president.

Despite his activist history – or perhaps because of it – Myers is at heart a scholar. Like Ben Rust before him he has published numerous articles and books on teaching, including a respected monograph on writing assessment procedures, and a model for achieving professional authority for teachers, The Teacher Researcher: How to Study Writing in the Classroom. He also served as the Administrative Director of the Bay Area Writing Project at UC Berkeley, and is at home equally in the labor movement and his academic organization, California Association of  Teachers of English. As an activist scholar, Myers’ qualifications provide him with an appropriate platform from which to lead the union’s participation in the debates over professionalization and education reform.

The national AFT has given Myers alternative governance models to set before the membership of the CFT and other interested parties. The Toledo Federation of Teachers, for instance, has established a program for guiding the professional growth of “interns”, probationary teachers working closely with consulting teachers. The interns are subject to the oversight of a Review Board comprised of 5 union teachers and 4 administrators, to whom the consulting teachers report. Emphasis is placed on helping beginning teachers learn how the system works and giving them proper levels of material support and professional guidance by their more experienced colleagues. Another Toledo program developed a means for intervening when a non-probationary teacher is in serious trouble; again, the emphasis is on collegial assistance under union protection. Both programs seek to empower teachers through professional control of their own ranks. The CFT brought Toledo Federation of Teachers officer Terry Wyatt to speak at QuEST conferences and CFT conventions.

The union has also hosted presentations by Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester, NY Federation. In a district where over half the students come from below the poverty line, where drugs and violence have reached such epidemic proportions that teachers no longer suspend students for “mere possession of a weapon”, the union and superintendent worked together to create a new structure. Teachers received higher pay and were released from nonteaching duties and excessive paperwork, in exchange for increased responsibilities for instruction and professional leadership.

The Rochester union and district created a career path with four steps: intern teacher, resident teacher, professional teacher and lead teacher. In Rochester lead teachers take the most difficult class assignments and assist interns. To encourage them to remain within the teaching ranks, lead teachers are forbidden to take administrative jobs during their tenure and for two years afterward. Teachers in Rochester also have taken on the responsibility to assess and offer assistance to poorly performing teachers.

In California in the mid-80s it was time to review the state’s Master Plan for Higher Education, last overhauled in 1960. The CFT sent leaders and rank and file members to testify before the Master Plan Commission on the condition of education and what to do about it. One of the first areas examined, the Community Colleges, ended with its mission essentially reaffirmed, but with significant changes recommended by the Joint Legislative Committee to Review the Master Plan. Included in these were an increase in funding, greater faculty involvement in governance, professional development for faculty and staff, and steps toward redressing the system-wide exploitation of part-time instructors.

The Community College Council of the CFT, led by Council President Roben Gabriner, played an important role in gaining these results, and in the ultimate passage of legislation based on the Joint Committee’s omnibus legislative package, AB 1725. Gabriner chaired the Californians for Community Colleges coalition, consisting of all major community college groups, which steered the Commission and Joint Committee toward their conclusions.

AB 1725 is a path breaking piece of legislation. For the first time, a state has pledged to enlarge its full-time faculty by converting part-timers to full time positions, and to commit funding to the process.  AB 1725 sets Affirmative Action goals and allocates the money to achieve them. The bill also begins to correct the chronic underfunding of the community colleges. It is an achievement of which the CFT can be proud.

Local initiatives coordinated by the CFT during the 80s complemented and extended the work achieved at the state legislative level. Perhaps the most important foray into uncharted terrain by the CFT was the establishment of “Educational Policy Trust Agreements” in a number of school districts in 1987 and 1988. Meant to give faculty and administrators a mechanism by which to grapple with problems outside the scope of the collective bargaining law, the idea of Trust Agreements emerged from the report of yet another education reform commission, the privately-funded California Commission on the Teaching Profession, or “Commons Commission”, named after its chair Dorman Commons. Its 1985 report, Who Will Teach Our Children?, recommended 27 specific changes in order to make education more effective for students and the field more attractive for people choosing careers. One of these was the establishment of Trust Agreements.

Initially suspicious that the proposal signaled an administrative intent to return to the discredited ‘meet and confer’ model of Winton Act days, Miles Myers became an advocate of the Trust Agreement process after intensive discussions with its originator, Dr. Charles Kerchner of the Claremont Graduate School of Education. In March of 1987 the Petaluma Federation of Teachers, Local 1881, signed the first Trust Agreement in California after protracted negotiations, providing for a major staff development in-service program. The following year the CFT and the California School Boards Association, in a nationwide first, worked together with local districts to create six new Trust Agreement programs. A $90,000 grant from a private foundation supported the project. At a news conference in Sacramento announcing the arrangement in October Myers said that “…this program is not an alternative to collective bargaining but a process enabling school management and union representatives to learn to work together as colleagues to improve instruction for students.” He also noted that “A key element of professionalizing teaching involves increasing teachers’ decision making authority and developing institutional structures to increase collegial relationships among teachers, and between teachers and management.” Still in its infancy, the Trust Agreement concept harkens back to the 1925 AFT convention call for teacher councils in school governance. Trust Agreements may prove to be California’s unique contribution to national teacher empowerment and educational reform.

At the same time as the CFT pursued new directions for public education it continued to carry out its habitual activities on behalf of educational employee rights, supporting local collective bargaining responsibilities, and anticipating in statewide coalitions for adequate funding for schools and other public services.

Nor has the union abandoned its longstanding support for movements for social justice. The CFT invited El Salvadorian teacher unionists to speak at the1986 convention. At the 1987 convention, resolutions were passed against US support for the Nicaraguan Contras and xenophobic “English-only” initiatives. In 1988 CFT members gathered thousands of signatures in solidarity with its union brothers and sisters in the private sector for the restoration of California’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, far more effective than its federal equivalent in protecting workers from job-related death, disease and injury. Eliminated by Governor Deukmejian with a stroke of the pen, Cal-OSHA is today back in operation, thanks to a successful campaign mounted by the union coalition through the ballot initiative process.

The CFT also contributed money, effective lobbying and grassroots local petition signature gathering to the coalition efforts to lift the regressive Gann state spending limit and put a school funding initiative on the ballot in 1988. As one of the four dozen organizations making up Californians for Quality Government, the CFT helped gather over one million signatures to qualify the Gann Limit Revision proposition for the ballot in June. The voters failed to pass the Revision. They did, however, vote Proposition 98, initiated by CTA and supported by CFT, into law in November, ushering in what may be a new era of stable funding for the state public education system.

The California Federation of Teachers has consistently fought for public education, and in most respects has worked on the farthest frontiers of educational change. From its inception it fought for the rights of teachers when no one else did. The first tenure law, passed in 1921, was supported by the CFT and the labor movement, and opposed by virtually every other education organization. In an age when women teachers were fired for the temerity of following their own taste in fashion, staying out past eight in the evenings or getting married, the CFT was so radical as to call for application of the constitutional rights of US citizens to women teachers, too. Basic teacher rights law was written by CFT legal cases from the 50s through the 70s with the selfless actions of scores of courageous teachers willing to put their careers on the line for principle, often against the tide of public opinion and the wishes of their “professional” organizations. A half-century before the California legislature passed a collective bargaining law for teachers, the CFT believed it necessary; twenty years before the CTA agreed, the CFT convinced legislators to present the first collective bargaining bill.

The AFT and the CFT alongside it have reshaped public debate over the direction of education. As long ago as the 1920s the union called for teacher control over educational policymaking. Today this type of education reforms on the verge of becoming reality, not over the bodies of the people in the classroom but with the union working to ensure that quality education and the empowerment of teachers and paras – in short, professionalization – will result from the process. Trust Agreements are but one of the latest contributions of the CFT to improve the quality of life for the CFT membership and the effectiveness of education for students.

As the California Federation of Teachers approaches the last decade of the twentieth century it is still winning victories for teachers, paraprofessionals, and other public employees. The CFT now boasts 32,000 dues-paying members, the largest membership it has ever served; another 25,000 people, not yet members, work under its contracts. In spring of 1989 it rejoiced at two electrifying events. Appropriately enough these took place in the two cities that have figured most prominently, north and south, in the story of the union: San Francisco and Los Angeles.

In San Francisco teachers voted for the return to collective bargaining agent status of the CFT’s oldest active local, the San Francisco Federation of Teachers, one of the charter locals of the statewide Federation. The local ran on a campaign of merger with the local Association and for restructuring the city’s schools. The president of SFFT Local 61, Joan Marie Shelley, reaffirmed in her victory speech her call for unity of the Federation and Association in San Francisco and in all of California.

In Los Angeles, a powerful model of what can be achieved by a united teachers union was demonstrated in May by UTLA, in its extraordinarily successful two-week strike for higher pay and school-site decision-making councils. Led by UTLA president (and AFT member) Wayne Johnson and Local 1021’s president Marvin Katz, twenty four thousand teachers walked picket lines, demonstrated and voted together to reject one offer and ratify another. It was an impressive display of teacher power, combining traditional bread and butter issues with a visionary proposal for democratic participation in worksite governance. These two victories for the L.A. teachers add up to a milestone on the road to reconstructing teaching as a profession.

Let that image close our narrative for now, and serve as a starting place for the struggles yet to come