Berkeley Federation of Teachers, Local 1078
In 1990, the BFT will have reached an age of two score years. During these four decades, the teachers’ union has undergone a metamorphosis: from an infant group struggling for legitimate recognition as an organization to the bargaining agent for certificated staff in the Berkeley Unified School District.
The 1950s: The Struggle to Exist
This was the age of the imperial rule of the superintendent. From his throne of declared infallibility, the superintendent governed his educational fiefdom with contemptuous autocracy. The school board existed merely as a mirror to reflect his imperial mandates. Upon employment, we were versed in the litany that to work in our city – the “Athens of the West” – was satisfaction enough. We were expected to admire the garment of his authority and leadership. Evidence of dissatisfaction could lead to dismissal without cause to other provinces of teaching.
His edicts were clear: join the PTA; become a member of the BTA-CTA-NEA conglomerate of professionals dominated by administrators; respect and obey your site principal; talk never of unionism…and with proper behavior, tenure would be granted to us.
Our beginning salary was $3500. Senior teachers with an AB+92 units or an MA+72 units could receive a top salary of $7200 after sixteen years in the district. We had no protective Personnel Policies, nor any vehicle to express our concerns to the school board or the community. Our voice on all educational matters was the superintendent.
The BFT’s “Founding Fathers” obtained its charter from the AFT in 1950. Its acquisition and membership were kept secret…for this was the decade of McCarthyism: when unionism equaled radicalism which equaled communism.
We met and socialized on weekends. We helped each other’s families move, paint and remodel our houses. We purchased a secondhand mimeograph machine and produced our monthly newspaper…which we distributed after school to teachers as they left their schools.
In the waning years of the 50s, we announced our existence. At board meetings, we were not recognized as an organization; we were not given equal time to the BTA at faculty meetings; we could not use the school mail; and no bulletin boards were made accessible to us in the schools. But we prevailed.
The 1960s: Pioneering Educational Reforms
We decided to become a community political organization. We encouraged and supported liberal and pro-labor individuals to seek election to the school board. Our newspaper…The Gadfly…was distributed to the community at large. Within a few years we had a liberal board…who appointed superintendents in tune with the winds of social and educational change.
Within the decade the BFT initiated and received board approval for:
a written personnel policy assuring teachers of protection
a proposal to restructure the junior high schools to put an end to segregation at this level of education
a proposal to restructure the elementary schools (K-6) in order to end desegregation. (We had sought a BFT variation of New York’s “More Effective Schools” concept. We had asked for a group of schools within a zone which would have been controlled by the BFT teachers who would determine curriculum and the site expenditure of funds. Our plan also introduced two way bussing in order to desegregate the elementary schools within the zone. The PTAs of the invoked schools supported the BFT plan. When the board met to vote approval, a clever director amended our proposal to desegregate the entire district’s elementary schools. The vote was 5-0 in favor. Desegregation of elementary schools was achieved…but the BFT lost its chance to control the education of a set of schools governed by teachers.)
a specific override tax on the people of Berkeley to provide the employees of our school district with Medical &dental coverage, income protection insurance covering illness and disability, and a general insurance coverage.
As the curtain lowered on the 1960s, we were still the minority organization among teachers. Despite our achievements, most teachers could not accept our union label (AFL-CIO). They were “professionals”. The melody of the BTA-CTA lingered on…..but confidence was high within the BFT.
The 1970s: Glorious In Defeat; Triumphant in the End
The school board remained “liberal” … and some members move on to higher public office and judgeships with our Alameda County AFL-CIO Labor’s endorsement. Most assuredly, we thought, teachers would discard their antediluvian notions of unionism and join the BFT…for we had the support of the board. A discordant note was registered in 1976. Members of the board felt they knew what was best for teachers. Knowing what was best for us, they took a paternalistic attitude. An impasse developed which required a rapprochement between the BFT and the BTA. Our united efforts in negotiations with the board collapsed. Both organizations’ members voted to walk out of their schools of employment.
We had all the elements for a successful strike: over 95% of the teachers honored the picket line; the community supported the demands of the striking teacher; and over 85% of the parents kept their children at home. But we did not win.
After six weeks, the teachers of Berkeley accepted the branch of reconciliation…with little fruit on it. Hindsight has brought us clairvoyance. We should have encouraged parents to send their children to teacher-emptied schools to demand an education from their movie-showing scabs; and we should not have operated “union tent schools” for working mothers with children.
The economic consequences of our six week strike continues to this day. So do the “joys of remembrance.” Never before nor since has the family of teachers existed … a camaraderie of meal sharing and help for others. Never before nor since has such teacher creativity expressed itself….in art, plays, or songs. (At the next CFT Convention … ask us about our “Board Erasers.”)
We may have lost the battle … we did not lose the war. We walked proudly down the halls and corridors of our schools after the strike…and it was principals and other administrators who stammered to explain their behavior. (And the “liberal”” on the board do not enjoy higher public office or judgeships today in 1989…because our Central Labor Council continues to remember.)
The teachers of Berkeley remembered the role of the BFT during the strike. With the appearance of the Rodda Act, the teachers of Berkeley voted to have the BFT as its bargaining agent.
The 1980s: Continued Struggles and Dangers
Prop. 13, the Serrano Act, and board policies brought the spectre of bankruptcy to our district during the early 1980s. A State loan saved BUSD from collapse. Through contract negotiations and necessary arbitration, the BFT continues to preserve the rights of teachers and excellent working conditions. In 1988, a BFT “walk-out” produced a three year progressive salary increase to keep our staff in competition with surrounding districts.
1990 will complete the two score existence of BFT, and will introduce a new decade. Pessimists are convinced that respectability will destroy the BFT as it has other members of the AFL-CIO family of unions. Complacency and apathy will be the termites that will eat away the foundations of our organization.
We disagree. And, the very publication of this book supports our disagreement. When teachers, now and in the future, read this History of California Teachers’ Unions….they will learn about, and appreciate their inheritance. While our anti-union critics forecast our demise…our teacher descendants will proclaim:
“THIS IS ONLY THE BEGINNING”
(A. J. Tudisco, contributor)