San Francisco Federation of Teachers, Local 61


Chartered 1919

Pre-World War II

Long regarded as a good labor town, San Francisco earned that reputation with the success of the General Strike in July of 1934 and the subsequent growth of blue-collar unionism. Chartered by the AFT in 1919, San Francisco Local 61 has enjoyed the strong support of the Labor Council and the State Federation of Labor, though organizing white-collars into unions has never been easy, even in San Francisco. The Local has also played an important role in the labor movement.

Like other unions, Local 61 has been affected by two, not always compatible, influences: ideological-unionism and bread-and-butter pragmatism. As with many pre-World-War II organizations, the Communist issue rose to plague the union movement. Unlike a number of locals, San Francisco survived the redbaiting of fifteen years of hysterical anti-Communism. Later, and forthrightly, the California Labor Federation and the teachers’ union went on to oppose McCarthyism and the witch hunts of the House Un-American Activities Committee, but failed to block a loyalty oath requirement for teachers in the 1950s.

Along with the rest of organized Labor, Local 61 engaged actively in the Civil Rights struggles of the ’60s and has routinely supported AFL-CIO calls to boycott anti-labor products, culminating in strong support of Cesar Chavez’s efforts to organize farm workers in the ’60s and ’70s.

This liberal bias in political activism derives from the progressive social agenda of the New Deal, as does its bread-and-butter orientation. The New Deal promoted decent housing, clothing, and shelter for everyone at the same time it was promoting a strong labor movement, as reflected in such legislation as the Wagner Labor Relations Act.

With its ideological base established early, 61 has been able to devote its recent attention to educational  issues along with practical struggles for decent wages, reasonable class sizes, and a safe, productive teaching-and learning environment.

Post-World War II

The modern Local dates from 1949 when a post-war crop of teachers, many of them World War II veterans fresh from college, began to see the AFT as a force for good in education and politics. As early as 1950, the Local had grown to 200 members and was growing steadily. Throughout the decade of the ’50s Local 61 met or exceeded its membership quota every year. With the entry of large numbers of men to the profession, the drive was on to make teaching a family sustaining occupation, where before, as with many women-dominated occupations, inferior pay and status prevailed, discouraging permanence in the teaching force and dampening pride in the profession.

Succeeding President Maurice Power, a junior college teacher, President Arthur Stewart, a hard-driving shop teacher, began to give modern shape to the Local with his militancy and talent for translating ideas into programs of action.

By 1956, when Dan Jackson, a junior high school history teacher, replaced Stewart as President, the Local was ready to embark upon a several-pronged program: (1) to begin to end the practice of dual-membership, whereby a teacher joined the CTA for insurance and the union for forceful representation, (2) seriously to challenge a complacent, administrator-run CTA for dominance, (3) to take strong leadership in the fight for decent salaries, (4) to commit San Francisco to a complete curriculum overhaul (5) and to develop strong, forceful, and effective grievance procedures to assist all teachers, regardless of affiliation.

During Dan Jackson’s tenure as President (1956-1965), the Local settled into its first office-a low-ceilinged, smoke-filled basement at 146 Pamassus Avenue. A Credit Union was put together by Dan O’Brien. The Local’s mimeographed newsletter, “The Reporter,” became a feisty, aggressive alternative to the CTA’s mushy house organ. In that post-Sputnik era, the union won an impressive victory when it forced major revisions in a lax curriculum over the opposition of the Superintendent and the CTA. In 1959, with a budget of $14,000, the union could look realistically toward hiring a full-time president and staff.

The 1960’s

As with other AFT Locals, the 1960s were a period of rapid growth for Local 61. In 1960, the Local pushed through a strong discipline code, reinforcing the notion that the AFT was a no-nonsense, completely teacher-oriented, teacher service organization.

Ignoring the CTA’s concern for administrator salaries, Howard Rote and Dwight Sandifur developed elaborately researched salary proposals exclusively for teachers. This approach, developed by State President Ben Rust to define the union’s differences with the CTA on salaries, greatly impressed the School Board and the teachers.

At the end of a one-day demonstration strike in 1968, the union had won not only significant salary improvements but a district-paid dental plan and a class-size limit to be achieved by the affirmative action hiring of 300 new teachers, so that, by the end of the decade, with strong backing from Labor, the local school board was finally forced to reckon seriously with a united, militant force of AFT teachers.

The 1970s

The great issue of the decade was, of course, the union’s collective bargaining drive. After the State Legislature passed the CFT-sponsored Collective Bargaining legislation, Local 61 won the election in 1977.

Leading up to that election, presidents Dan Jackson, then Al Tapson (1965-1967), then James Ballard (1967- 1984) worked hard to build membership, including the formation of a chapter of paraprofessionals in 1972, establish a larger office, hire more staff, and develop a set of membership-drafted demands in preparation for becoming the collective bargaining agent.

But Local 61 had to pioneer the process in Northern California, and the gains did not come without pains. The Local had previously voted full, largely successful, strikes in 1971 and 1974, before collective bargaining. In 1979 the District, using Proposition 13 as an excuse to discredit the union with the teachers, undertook massive layoffs of some 1,200. Responding to that devastating blow, Local 61 had no option but to strike to force the school district to re-hire them.

That bitter, 6-week strike proved to be terribly costly to the teachers and the union, so that Local 61, although it forced the re-hiring of hundreds of teachers and paraprofessionals, lost a subsequent collective bargaining election in 1981 to a CTA that promised gains without pains.

The 1980s

When the School Board engaged in massive layoffs, the teachers discovered that even tenured teachers could be fired with the simple, if erroneous, claim of financial hardship. Could any other action have forced a better result in 1979? Partly in consequence of the incapacity of local districts to deal across the board with their employees, the CTA made absolutely no headway representing teachers. In fact, class size grew scandalously. Job-security fell to the scythe of Proposition 13. Cut-backs at all levels and the CTA’s flabby negotiations demoralized teachers, eliminated orderly hiring, firing, and transfer policies, and produced a harried work force.

In the early 1980s Jim Ballard’s leadership became increasingly controversial as the Local lost a second collective bargaining election to the CTA. Teachers feared strike actions and Ballard’s association with them. He had locked horns with an intransigent superintendent and school board and couldn’t reestablish good working relations with them. Each side had become rigidly distrustful of the other. In1984, Ballard turned the leadership over to his Vice-President, Joan-Marie Shelley, a longtime ally. Her task was to re-invigorate the union, prepare it for a new period of growth, gain the confidence of the teachers, and persuade the un-organized to join the faithful in a new drive to regain collective bar gaining representation.

The first major challenge under the new leadership came in 1985 when the California School Employees association sought to decertify SF/AFT as bargaining agent for paraprofessionals. Local 61 won the election handily by a margin of nearly two to one and went on to negotiate the “longevity” program, which made the 700 (now up to 1100) most senior paraprofessionals permanent and provided them with paid vacations, movement on the salary schedule, and district-paid dental benefits. A year later the union entered into a trust agreement with the school district establishing the Paraprofessional Career Program, in which the union and the district cooperate to enable paraprofessionals to complete college, earn credentials, and become teachers in the district.

The present membership of Local 61 is a healthy 2,200, including a vigorous Retired Teachers Chapter, which was formed in 1984 and is now a mainstay of the local.

On May 25, 1989, the rebuilding period ended successfully when Local 61, beating the CTA in a challenging election, won back the right to serve as collective bargaining agent. The San Francisco Federation of Teachers thus began a new and promising chapter in its seventy year history.

(Maury Englander, Joan-Marie Shelley, contributors)