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A Teachers Union Against Itself

Organized Labor and the Crisis at City College of San Francisco

City College of San Francisco Teachers Protest
Rick Baum has taught political science at City College of San Francisco since 1997. A member of American Federation of Teachers Local 2121, he has been active in efforts to save CCSF from closure during its accreditation controversy.

For much of the past half-century, employer attacks, deindustrialization, and declining membership have hobbled organized labor in the United States. The weakened capacity of unions to protect members’ jobs and improve their standard of living has hurt longer-term prospects for labor rights and workers’ empowerment.

To this list of external threats, however, must be added the failure of unions themselves to adhere to democratic principles by involving members in developing and executing goals and strategies. The increasingly opaque, top-down decision-making of major union leadership discourages an active rank and file, especially when these leaders fail to offer a vision worth fighting for. Worse still, union “leaders” may even help to facilitate management’s goals. This accommodation to management is not always obvious, given union leaders’ pro-worker rhetoric and their historic ability, especially in the past, to guarantee decent levels of pay and benefits for members. Today, however, the best they are often able to accomplish is occasionally to mitigate the most egregious management assaults on employee rights.

The experience of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Local 2121 at City College of San Francisco (CCSF) illustrates some of these problems. AFT 2121 has developed a reputation as a relatively powerful, democratic, and transparent union, successfully representing faculty in a city and state dominated by the Democratic Party. In what follows, we will see that this is not the case.

In July 2012, CCSF was harshly sanctioned and, a year later, threatened with closure by its accrediting agency, the Accreditation Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC), initiating a crisis that continues today. The college has been severely downsized, a painful process that has exposed the weaknesses of AFT 2121, whose leaders have accepted austerity measures and have failed to involve members in important decisions about demands, goals, and strategy.

The Transformation of Public Education

The crisis at CCSF can only be understood in the context of the successive systematic changes that have reshaped public education since the Second World War. Public universities and colleges grew rapidly from the 1950s through the 1970s, the heyday of an expanding Fordist capitalism that required more trained workers and managers. In the decades since, deindustrialization and advances in computerization, communication, and transportation have reduced those needs. These shifts have been accompanied by the alteration or destruction of public goods and institutions, including schools, to meet the needs of capital.

Deregulation and privatization have hastened a scramble for newly commodified public resources. Public money is funneled into for-profit colleges, and K–12 public school funds and facilities are turned over to charter schools. Additionally, funds for public education are used to administer high-stakes tests, which have spawned a lucrative industry dominated by private testing firms.

At all levels of schooling, the liberal-arts emphasis on critical thinking and civic engagement has been superseded by an ideology of professional training, in which education exists only to prepare students to “compete” effectively in a globalized economy. In his 2014 State of the Union address, President Obama expressed his ambition to connect “companies to community colleges that can help design training to fill their specific needs.” While nominally friendlier to public education, the Obama administration continued many of the Bush administration’s corporate school “reform” initiatives, supplanting the latter’s No Child Left Behind with its own Race to the Top. Both pushed for more charter schools and standardized curricula, reinforced by high-stakes testing.

Elements of Race to the Top were extended to higher education, on the assumption that competition for funding and prestige would motivate institutions to improve their performance. The Obama administration favored a ranking system, using data-driven indices such as graduation rates and alumni earnings to determine if a college’s programs were successful. Lower-scoring schools would receive less funding. The qualitative dimensions of a “successful” education, such as creativity, community engagement, and much more, have been cast aside.1

The rhetoric of achievement, choice, and competition often obscures the long-range goals and motives of higher-education “reformers.” Besides the alleged aim of providing students with job-related skills, these include: (1) lowering labor costs by weakening or even eliminating teacher unions and tenure rights, while relying more on poorly paid, easily replaceable adjunct instructors; (2) standardizing education by employing Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs) to evaluate students and teachers; (3) applying “successful” management techniques by running schools like a businesses, with top-down authoritarian decision-making; and (4) cutting the cost and size of physical facilities by requiring students to quickly choose and complete programs by attending full-time and encouraging enrollment in online classes, in order to further reduce the need for teachers.2

Advocates of “reform” claim that these measures will help contain costs while raising standards in higher education. Online classes taught by academic “superstars” will provide cheap, “first-class” instruction, while the role of the remaining faculty will be to hold discussions, answer students’ questions, and grade papers and tests—when these tasks are not automatically done online. The resulting degradation of faculty jobs will thus justify lower pay and weakened job security.

Contradictory forces are at work in all of this. The public is told that a college education is vital to professional success. However, much of the recent growth in the U.S. labor market has been in sectors that do not require college degrees—typically in the form of low-wage, part-time service jobs.3 Some politicians and business leaders thus see any significant expansion of higher education as a low priority and even believe that some colleges will need to be downsized or closed. However, this attitude conflicts with the interests of the powerful student loan industry, which predictably favors efforts to increase college attendance. Meanwhile, other businesses benefit from a larger pool of students with desirable skills, which results in glutted labor markets that enable businesses to pay lower wages and salaries.4

The Embrace of Pro-Business Reforms

In early 2012, the State Chancellor’s Student Success Task Force (SSTF) provided a blueprint for transforming community colleges to “grow our economy” and meet “the demands of California’s evolving workplace,” that is, better serve business. Success would be measured by criteria such as the percentage of students earning a certificate or degree, or by the number who transfer to a four-year college. A preference was for students to attend full-time, something many cannot do.

The SSTF authors drew a connection to President Obama’s goals, linking their efforts to his 2010 “Call to Action,” which “highlighted the community colleges as the key to closing our nation’s [supposed] skills gap.”5 The ACCJC, perhaps improperly, lobbied in favor of the SSTF recommendations. Effective opposition to some of the recommendations was provided by leaders at CCSF before the ACCJC sanctioned the college. Like others, San Francisco’s City Attorney Dennis Herrera, who later brought a case against the ACCJC, viewed its actions against CCSF as retaliation for opposing the SSTF.6

CCSF’s Response to Recession

All of these themes can be seen in the accreditation controversy at CCSF. In the years after the financial crisis of 2008–09, educational institutions across the country were starved of funds. From 2007 to 2012, when demand was soaring, California’s community colleges faced cuts of $1.5 billion, while an estimated “500,000 students were shut out of the system.”7 However, CCSF Chancellor Don Griffin did not respond to the budget crisis by reducing class offerings and laying-off employees, as might be expected. Griffin and other college administrators instead sought to limit cuts by drawing on the college’s reserves, deferring facilities maintenance, and not replacing administrators who had recently left. As a result, CCSF’s student population dropped by less than 10 percent from 2008 to 2011–12, while other urban districts in the state experienced much steeper declines. In Los Angeles, community college enrollment dropped by 15.5 percent, or over 42,000 students. In San Diego, the figure was almost 20 percent. Until 2012, CCSF’s student population remained comparatively stable.8

Griffin’s “unorthodox” response to the budget pressures was presumably frowned upon by accrediting authorities. When the ACCJC sanctioned CCSF in July 2012, it demanded the hiring of more administrators. It also falsely claimed that the college was on the verge of insolvency, despite that fact that from 2009–14, CCSF had consistently maintained an annual budget surplus greater than that required by state law. Health problems forced Griffin to retire shortly before the ACCJC sanction. His interim replacement as chancellor, an outsider with no connection to the college, supported the ACCJC’s mandates, and acted to implement dramatic changes to counter what she described as CCSF’s institutional inflexibility and excessive spending.

How did a community college that managed to serve and retain most of its student population and remain fiscally sound amid a painful recession and a budget crisis—no small feat in the second-most expensive city in the United States—become a target of such condemnation by accrediting authorities? The answer involves a disastrous collision of corporate education reform, administrative arrogance, and timid, undemocratic union leadership.

The Accreditation Crisis

The U.S. Department of Education (DOE) guidelines state that “the goal of accreditation is to ensure that the education provided meets acceptable levels of quality.”9 In 2012, the ACCJC visiting team “confirmed” that CCSF “provides comprehensive and accessible student services” and “concluded that the instructional programs…provide high-quality instruction,” indicating that CCSF exceeded the DOE’s goal of accreditation, and was fulfilling a college’s fundamental purpose of educating and serving students.10 Yet the ACCJC sanctioned CCSF by placing it on “show cause,” its harshest sanction short of closure that requires the college to prove to the agency why it should remain open.

Many of the teachers, staff, and students were shocked. The college had never before been sanctioned.11 There was worse to come: in 2013, the ACCJC decreed that CCSF should be closed within a year, although it did hold open the possibility that it could remain open beyond that date.12 The day after the release of ACCJC’s closure letter, the college’s interim chancellor sent out an email informing students that the commission had “decided to terminate” CCSF’s accreditation “effective July 31, 2014.” She failed to mention the ACCJC statement that the college might remain open beyond then. Unsurprisingly, that school year enrollment declined over 10 percent, and a record number of students finished their program and graduated.13 The closure threat might not have been real, but it was taken seriously, and used by the administration to justify CCSF’s transformation and downsizing, which have reduced the educational opportunities for CCSF’s students, who are predominantly working-class people of color.

State Takeover

Immediately after the closure decision, State Chancellor Brice Harris, a former ACCJC commissioner, altered rules to enable a state takeover of CCSF. Retired Santa Rosa Junior College president Robert Agrella was hired to replace the college’s democratically elected board of trustees, and was given the superhero title of Special Trustee with Extraordinary Powers. In a jointly authored statement, Harris and San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee wrote that “a stronger hand” was needed to address the college’s alleged deficiencies if it was to remain open.

Agrella promptly moved to impose austerity. Claiming that in 2012 the college had spent 92 percent of its budget on salaries, benefits, and pensions, he said that this figure would have to be slashed to around 80 percent.14 Agrella soon hired a permanent chancellor, Art Tyler, who had earned a PhD from the for-profit giant University of Phoenix, and had previously worked as an “anti-terrorism manager” for the Air Force.15 Most alarmingly, Tyler had also served as the special trustee at Compton College (whose student population was 95 percent black or Latino) when it was shut down by the ACCJC for his failure to fix the school’s finances.16

After a year and a half, Agrella abruptly resigned without explanation. In the summer of 2015, Harris, along with Agrella’s replacement, demoted Tyler without explanation, and hired still another chancellor, the fourth since shortly before the accreditation crisis began. About six months later, Tyler resigned in the wake of a damning San Francisco Chronicle report that he had spent about a third of his time as chancellor travelling, in the process incurring more than $300,000 in undocumented expenses all on the college’s dime, according to the president of the college’s Board of Trustees.17

Such dysfunction has taken a severe toll on students and teachers. Enrollment at CCSF has dropped by more than a quarter, from 90,352 students in 2011–12 to 65,867 in 2015–2016.18 In the same period, by comparison, statewide community college enrollment declined by less than 4 percent. The number of full-time faculty has also declined, from 810 in the fall of 2011 to 618 by the fall 2015 term, while the number of part-time faculty has decreased by 17 percent. Meanwhile, five more highly-paid administrators have been hired, bringing their total number to forty-five. Their average salary in 2015 reached $154,756, more than $13,000 above the state average, while the average salary for full-time faculty was $81,234, more than $11,000 below the state average. Programs for “lifelong learners”—that is, students not pursuing immediate job training—are now treated as wasteful, as reflected in the college’s revised mission statement, changed after the crisis began. It stipulates that these programs will continue only if “resources allow” for their funding—in effect, an excuse for cutting them altogether.19 Additionally, the administration is seeking to turn over college property to private developers.20

Backlash against the ACCJC

Following the ACCJC’s closure announcement in 2013, a then-independent group called the Coalition to Save CCSF organized the largest demonstration to date in front of the San Francisco offices of the DOE. City politicians who previously had accepted the ACCJC decisions now denounced it.

This popular and political backlash soon prompted several important actions against the ACCJC. California’s state legislature, with bipartisan support, voted to audit the commission. (The resulting report, released in June 2014, found the ACCJC to be “inconsistent in applying its accreditation process” and insufficiently transparent in its deliberations.21 The DOE likewise found the ACCJC out of compliance with accreditation rules, and required it “to take immediate steps” to come into compliance.)22 In addition, the San Francisco’s City Attorney’s office won a court-ordered injunction to stop the closure of CCSF, with a municipal judge later ruling that the ACCJC had engaged in “significant unlawful practices”—while nevertheless stopping short of reversing the closure decree.23

In 2014, under pressure from politicians, the ACCJC granted CCSF more time to correct its alleged deficiencies, under a new policy called “restoration status,” which would give the college until January 2017 to fully comply with the ACCJC’s demands—as interpreted by the ACCJC—or face closure without any right to appeal.

In August 2015, a state chancellor’s task force found that the ACCJC “no longer meets the current and anticipated needs of the California Community Colleges” and should be replaced because “its member institutions have lost confidence in” it.24 However, State Chancellor Harris stated replacing the ACCJC could take up to ten years.25 Unfortunately, were the ACCJC replaced, there is no guarantee that its successor would be much different.

The Union’s Response

Saving CCSF would require a fight that mobilized people not only against the ACCJC, but also others including the college administration and state government. Standing behind these state bodies were private foundations, businesses, and the DOE. Yet, since the announcement of the ACCJC’s ultimatum, AFT 2121 leaders and the California Federation of Teachers (CFT) have focused primarily on doing battle only with the commission, while largely ignoring the state chancellor and the CCSF administration, despite their dedication to a corporate “reform” agenda. Union leaders have done little to mobilize people, to make demands, and to confront those in power. Their approach has instead been to call on Democratic politicians, the courts, and other government bodies to help solve the crisis.

CFT President Josh Pechthalt declared his faith in this approach: in an April 2014 Chronicle column, he wrote that “we believe the courts and the legislative process will right the wrong done to City College.”26 Strangely, at almost the same time, Pechthalt contradicted himself, admitting in the April–May 2014 issue of California Teacher that “we know that relying on politicians or the courts is futile.” But despite these mixed messages, the union’s actions have been consistently guided by the belief that justice can be achieved through state institutions.

The approach to almost solely focus on the ACCJC, like all major decisions within AFT 2121, was formulated by the leadership. Members have rarely been invited to discuss strategy or assess past decisions. At meetings, open debates involving all attendees are discouraged in favor of the division of members into subgroups to discuss the one issue raised and later to report back to all attendees. It is hardly surprising, then, that despite the enormity of the crisis, union meetings usually attracted only about thirty out of 1,100 members.

When the accreditation crisis began in 2012, the entire CCSF community was caught off-guard. Many were intimidated by the power of the accreditors, and AFT 2121 feared retaliation if it stood up to the ACCJC, believing that doing so could risk the closure of the college, for which the union would be blamed. Rather than challenge the accreditors directly, early efforts were put into raising more revenue for the college. Statewide and local funding propositions appeared on the November 2012 ballot, and both passed handily, despite the slew of damning news stories about CCSF.

The interim chancellor, however, dismissed these victories, insisting that the propositions’ “passage does not mitigate the need for continued fiscal and structural reform…required by the Accrediting Commission.” And though the local revenue proposition explicitly had sought to prevent layoffs and maintain student support services, the administration laid off more than sixty employees, including all part-time counselors, and imposed a 9 percent pay cut on the remaining faculty. The response of AFT 2121’s leadership was to file an unfair labor practices complaint that would later be dropped during negotiations for a new contract. The lack of greater resistance at this early stage of the crisis sent a clear message to the administration that it could bully the faculty union.

Much of the college’s state funding depends on student enrollment. AFT 2121’s president recognized that the rapid decline in enrollment put the college at risk of losing more than $20 million, which would cause further cuts to classes and faculty jobs. Nevertheless, she rejected a request that she call on CFT leaders to help find sympathetic state legislators to sponsor a bill that would provide CCSF with more funding. She claimed this was not the right time, because the college had first to build a “public record of CCSF’s importance to the community”—even though the community had recently overwhelmingly voted in favor of raising taxes to support the college. This funding request was never discussed at a union meeting.

In April 2013, out of the blue, the CFT filed an official DOE complaint against the accrediting commission.27 While this move represented a welcome reversal from the union’s earlier passive approach to the ACCJC, only a small group of AFT 2121 members were informed before the complaint was filed. In a democratic union, members would be given a say over such a major decision, even if most would have supported it. Soon thereafter, possibly in retaliation, the ACCJC issued its decision to close the college.

The public would later learn that prior to the closure decision, CCSF’s two top administrators held a secret meeting with the ACCJC. According to ACCJC commissioners, they both described a college in disarray with an intimidating environment that resisted implementing changes demanded by the ACCJC. Their statements were cited by ACCJC Commissioners as a major reason for their closure decision.28

What Went Wrong?

Too frequently, union leaders put forth vague or undefined demands. The “demand” concerning accreditation and during recent contract negotiations is that they be “fair.” After the state takeover, the AFT 2121 leadership organized a rally in front of San Francisco’s City Hall to call on Mayor Lee, who had recently helped the state chancellor orchestrate the state takeover, to “Protect Our City College.” The “demand” was that the mayor “preserve all the opportunities” that CCSF provides, something he could say he was already doing.

This was hardly the end of the AFT 2121 leadership’s shortcomings. At key moments, they appeared all too ready to acquiesce to the austerity measures imposed by the administration. In late 2013, negotiations for a new faculty contract were concluded, and union leaders convinced the faculty to vote for its approval, even though the “raise” included in the new contract provided for nominal pay that was still 3.5 percent lower than in 2007.

Around the same time, the special trustee decided to grant top administrators a double-digit pay raise.29 The union leadership called for this decision to be reversed, prompting CCSF Chancellor Tyler claim in a letter that he and other administrators “didn’t…come for the money,” and accused the union president of distorting “the truth,” and sowing “divisiveness.”30 This was apparently enough to silence the union leadership: no sustained campaign, protest, or action was organized in response.

Within the organization itself, AFT 2121 leaders were often uncommunicative and opaque. Members were routinely informed that the union’s staff and officers were hard at work, but were given only a vague idea of the union’s goals and strategy, usually learning about decisions after the fact. In October 2014, for instance, AFT 2121’s executive board held a meeting with AFT president Randi Weingarten. Faculty were not invited to participate. The board announced afterward that Weingarten had “made a commitment” to “do what was necessary to keep City College open…and to rein in the rogue ACCJC,” and that she, together with AFT 2121 and CFT leaders, also held a “productive” meeting with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi concerning the ACCJC. However, no details were provided, and once again, no input was sought from teachers, students, or community members.

Likewise, in the spring 2016 elections for new union officers, all candidates ran unopposed as a single slate, and there were no campaign statements, debates, or discussions. Even the vote counts for each candidate remained secret until a motion was passed to release them—over the objections of many union leaders. When the figures were finally released, it was revealed that less than 30 percent of union members had turned out to vote—a further symptom of the disconnect between leaders and the union’s rank and file.31

A further shortcoming was the failure to openly discuss important issues. In fall 2015, CCSF’s administration announced their plans to reduce the number of scheduled classes by 25 percent over the next five years. Many jobs would be eliminated, and, with fewer dues-paying members, the union would be further weakened. Yet at the next two union meetings, despite a request, the cuts were not discussed. The leadership publicly condemned the proposed cuts, but failed to put forward any plans to fight them. The president asserted that the planned class cuts were decided by the administration and therefore could not be considered during the negotiations then taking place, despite the fact that the administration’s pay offer was to be partly funded through reductions in classes.32

In spring 2015, negotiations began for a new faculty contract. A tentative agreement was not reached until more than a year later, in July 2016. The administration seemingly sought to delay and prolong the process at every turn, taking months before proposing a nominal pay increase barely above the 2007 level—and even this was undercut by their subsequent announcement that faculty would be expected to soon return to their supposed earlier “productivity rate” by teaching classes with over 40 percent more students. During negotiations, AFT 2121 leaders began preparing for a strike, but never organized a meeting for all members to discuss and plan the action.

Finally, in early 2016, with slightly more than half the faculty participating and 92 percent voting in favor, the leadership was formally authorized to make decisions regarding a strike. An unfair labor practices complaint was filed, and the call went out for a one-day strike to protest the administration’s untenable contract proposals. Just two days before the planned strike, the chancellor announced the college would be closed on the day of the action. The action went ahead as planned. More than a thousand people turned out to join the picket lines and rally.33 However, at a college with more than 1,500 faculty members and 60,000 students, the turnout could have been far larger.

The modest numbers reflected the union leaders’ lack of interest in mobilizing people to confront the administration directly. Months before the strike, a small group of faculty had independently organized several pickets during the contract negotiations, to voice their opposition to the administration’s tactics. The union president expressed his support for the pickets, but made no effort to publicize them, encourage other members to participate, or otherwise build on their momentum.

AFT 2121 leaders showed a curious indifference to mobilization even when organizing their own actions: in January 2016, union officers called for a picket and boycott of an address given by the college chancellor, but did not promote their plan until just before it was to happen, practically ensuring that it would be sparsely attended.

A Contract with Austerity

After so many months of struggle, the contract agreement finally reached in July 2016 left the purchasing power of faculty pay much below where it stood in 2007, and made no provision against loss of jobs from planned class reductions. Nevertheless, union leaders hailed the agreement as a “victory.”34 The union president offered assurances that most members would see “at least a 14 percent [pay] increase” by the end of the third year of the contract.

However, according to the union, a pay increase of 25 percent as of August 2015 would have been necessary to restore the purchasing power of faculty pay to 2007 levels.35 Inflation and, for many, increased pension and medical deductions will further erode the real value of faculty salaries. Upon the contract’s expiration, the agreement also allows pay decreases of 2.68 percent if the downsizing administration fails to increase enrollment.36 Unsurprisingly, shortly after members approved the contract, union leaders won approval of a 19 percent increase in faculty union dues—obviously, in part, to make up for the decline in revenue resulting from faculty layoffs.

In presenting the proposed agreement, union leaders warned members that if they rejected the contract, the administration would simply impose a worse one, unless faculty went on strike to fight for something better. By that point, few were inclined to risk a prolonged strike, led by unenthusiastic union leaders, that might only provide the ACCJC with a further reason to label CCSF “dysfunctional” and press for closure.

Prior to signing the tentative agreement, union leaders did not call for a membership meeting to discuss its contents. Instead, a Special Delegates Assembly meeting, open to all, was held to accept or reject the agreement. After the union president touted the tentative contract as an “excellent agreement” and said that the negotiators and all union leaders favored it, opponents and supporters were given equal time to express their views. Yet this uncommonly open debate had no impact. To no one’s surprise, the delegates decided, with only one dissenting vote, to recommend approval. In short order, with no meaningful alternative and the dubious enticement of a “double-digit pay increase,” the faculty voted overwhelmingly in favor of approval, 574 to 16—a turnout of less than 40 percent of all faculty.

Leaders Undercut Members’ Decision

In spring 2016, a group of faculty and community members put together a comprehensive resolution urging the ACCJC to immediately grant CCSF full accreditation.37 Its purpose was to educate people about CCSF’s accreditation crisis, to mobilize them to put pressure on the ACCJC, and to help undercut the administration use of the crisis to further a corporate agenda. Endorsers included the chancellor and Board of Trustees of the San Mateo County Community College District, former CFT president Martin Hittelman, and the San Francisco and San Mateo Labor Councils.

AFT 2121’s Executive Board decided not even to vote on the resolution before it was brought before a membership meeting. As usual, few people—perhaps two dozen—were in attendance when the resolution was taken up. After a debate, it was passed by a large majority. Only four officers and a former one voted against endorsement.

The resolution next was submitted to the 2016 convention of the CFT. The committee assigned to process it was chaired by a former president and current political director of AFT 2121 who had voted against endorsement. The committee decided, without making a recommendation, to have the Executive Council of the CFT, not the convention delegates, vote on the resolution at its next meeting. When the committee decision was brought before convention delegates, AFT 2121’s president advocated support for the committee recommendation. When asked for an explanation for why he did not advocate for his members’ endorsement decision, he wrote “because of the need for flexibility in our strategy against the ACCJC,” offering no description of this strategy.

When the CFT Executive Council met, AFT 2121’s president spoke against endorsement, claiming, according to a CFT Executive Officer, that endorsement “was not…helpful to the effort.” This officer later wrote that “the resolution called for a particular action on a position that the CFT already held.” Nevertheless, despite the resolution reflecting a position the “CFT already held,” the executive council voted unanimously against endorsement.

The CFT has primarily called for “fair” accreditation, not that CCSF should be fully accredited. It is apparently relying on a favorable court ruling in its case against the ACCJC started in 2013 that has still not gone to trial. In the meantime, the ACCJC “restoration status” decision that could be to close CCSF will be rendered in early 2017.

Organizing Faculty and Fighting Back

The leaders of AFT 2121 promoted a decidedly narrow vision of what the union could achieve: that is of piecemeal reforms and stopgap measures, meant only to prevent management from taking even more away from teachers. This fostered an attitude of resignation and cynicism, made worse by the economic insecurity that compels members to avoid risks and defer to leaders’ decisions.

At a deeper level, teachers tend to accept the status quo for a variety of reasons. Many faculty members see themselves as “professionals,” for whom the union is more an impersonal service agency rather than a living community or cause, while others seek to rise through the ranks and become highly paid administrators, and tend to side with the latter, even against their own interests. Some embrace the corporate “reform” agenda. At CCSF, many worked to fulfill the “demands” of the ACCJC even though their implementation was no guarantee that the ACCJC would grant CCSF full accreditation. Still others are constrained by the lack of readily available alternative forms of employment at comparable pay levels, especially if they are older, disabled, or struggling financially. At the opposite extreme, teachers with tenure, unlike the majority with insecure and low-paid part-time jobs, enjoy job security and income that largely insulates them from the worst effects of pay and benefit cuts. A final reason, one too easily overlooked, is that their relentless workload leaves many teachers simply too busy and exhausted to engage in union organizing, which requires significant commitments of time and energy.

All of these challenges point back to the need for effective union leadership. If educators are to build real democratic structures to counter the ongoing assault on public education, we need leaders who provide guidance, vision, and accountability, and who are willing to give up their power to members. To achieve real democracy in which each union member has an equal voice over decisions, members must be organized and ready to challenge the practices of both their own leadership and the institutional powers arrayed against them. Were these conditions met, unions like the AFT 2121 would become more powerful.

Will greater union democracy enable members to more effectively serve students, protect their jobs, and improve their standard of living? That is unclear. Politics, as always, is complicated and unpredictable. However, as the story of the crisis at CCSF shows, failure to institute internal democracy leaves faculty in a far weaker position from which to pursue those goals.


On Friday, January 13, 2017, after this article was written, CCSF’s interim chancellor informed the college’s community that the ACCJC had decided to fully accredit the college. This was great news. However, there are no signs that this hard-won victory marks the end of efforts to downsize the college. The administration still plans to cut more classes. Recently, it put forward plans, approved by the faculty union, to offer a “golden handshake” that could result in a hundred full-time faculty—about a sixth of the total—retiring this fall, while promising to replace only fifty of these retirees over the next five years.


  1. In a private meeting during the California Federation of Teachers March 2016 convention, AFT president Randi Weingarten described Obama’s educational policies as “corporatist,” a word not used when she addressed the entire convention.
  2. Martin Hittelman, “ACCJC Gone Wild,” February 15, 2017, available at Hittelman is a former president of the CFT. See also Rick Baum, “California Democrats Starve Public Education,” Counterpunch, September 17, 2015,
  3. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Employment Projections—2014–24,” news release, December 8, 2015, Table 6. Occupations with the most job growth, 2014–24,
  4. Robert Reich, “College Degree Not the Only Route to Middle Class,” SFGate, March 27, 2015, Noting that college degree is no longer any a guarantee of a well-paying job, Reich, labor secretary under President Clinton, envisions “a world-class system of vocational-technical education,” with community colleges playing a leading role. “Businesses could be advising on the technical skills they’ll need, and promising jobs to young people who complete their degrees with good grades,” he writes. Such a system would not guarantee a job upon graduation to all students, but only to those “with good grades”—a sign of the inadequacy of meritocratic liberal reforms.
  5. California Community Colleges Student Success Task Force, “Advancing Student Success in the California Community Colleges,” January 17, 2012, 11,
  6. San Francisco City Attorney’s Office, “Herrera Sues to Block Accreditors from Shuttering City College of San Francisco,” news release, August 22, 2013,
  7. California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office, “2013–14 Key Facts for the California Community Colleges System,” February 5, 2014; California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office, “California Community Colleges Board of Governors Vote to Support Proposition 30, the School and Local Public Safety Act,” news release, September 10, 2012, both available at
  8. A searchable database of California community college enrollment statistics is available at
  9. Accreditation in the United States,” U.S. Department of Education,
  10. Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges [ACCJC], “Evaluation Report: City College of San Francisco,” 2012, 37–38,
  11. Two years later, the public would learn that the ACCJC overruled its visiting team’s unanimous recommendation for a milder sanction: see Lee Romney, “S.F. College Evaluators Proposed Probation, Not More Severe Sanctions,” Los Angeles Times, August 22, 2014.
  12. Letter from ACCJC President Barbara A. Beno to CCSF Interim Chancellor Thelma Scott-Skillman, July 3, 2013,
  13. Laura Dudnick, “CCSF Sees Record High Number of Graduates for 2013–14,” San Francisco Examiner, May 21, 2014.
  14. Jim Carlton and Caroline Porter, “One Man’s Mission to Save City College of San Francisco,” Wall Street Journal, November 11, 2013.
  15. Untitled biography of Arthur Q. Tyler, January 2014,
  16. For details on Tyler’s role, see California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office, “Chancellor Drummond Appoints Special Trustee for Compton CCD Intervention Invoked to Restore District’s Fiscal Health,” news release, December 22, 2009; Agenda for the April 25, 2007 meeting of the California State Assembly Budget Subcommittee No. 2 on Education Finance,; Letter from ACCJC Chair Joseph Richey and President Barbara Breno to Compton Community College Interim Superintendent-President Jamillah Moore, November 18, 2005,
  17. Nanette Asimov, “City College of S.F. Splurges on Administrators’ Travel, Meals,” SFGate, December 25, 2015; “City College of S.F. Exec Art Tyler Resigns amid Controversy,” SFGate, January 7, 2016.
  18. Other factors causing enrollment to decline include the demographic changes and affordable housing crisis resulting from the city’s tech-industry boom, and a confusing online registration system whose numerous navigation difficulties discourage students from attending (one college trustee complained that it took him over an hour to register for a single class).
  19. Mission and Vision Statement,” City College of San Francisco,
  20. Michael Barba, “CCSF to Consider Building Educator Housing at Former Civic Center Campus,” San Francisco Examiner, September 22, 2016; “CCSF Cuts $11.5 Million Deal with Developers as Fiscal Cliff Looms,” San Francisco Examiner, October 19, 2016.
  21. California State Auditor’s Office, “California Community College Accreditation,” June 2014, The report also found that the ACCJC may have been overzealous in sanctioning colleges: “Between 2009 and 2013, the commission (ACCJC) took 269 accreditation actions…and issued 143 sanctions, a sanction rate of roughly 53 percent. By comparison the other six regional accreditors together had a sanction rate of just over 12 percent.”
  22. Letter from U.S. Department of Education Accreditation Group Director Kay W. Gilcher to ACCJC President Barbara A. Beno, August 13, 2013.
  23. Superior Court of California–County of San Francisco, Case No. CGC-13-533693, Statement of Decision, February 17, 2015.
  24. California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office, “Report of the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office Task Force on Accreditation,” 2015,
  25. Ashley A. Smith, “New or Improved?Inside Higher Ed, March 8, 2016.
  26. Joshua Pechthalt, “Time to Rein in Accreditors’ Assault on City College of S.F.,” SFGate, April 25, 2014.
  27. Third Party Comment and Complaint of California Federation of Teachers et al. before the ACCJC, April 30, 2013, available at
  28. See excerpts from the day-five testimony of ACCJC commissioners in the case brought against the ACCJC by the San Francisco City Attorney in “The People vs. ACCJC,” California Federation of Teachers,
  29. Letter from AFT 2121 President Alissa Messer and Executive Director Chris Hanzo to CCSF Board of Trustees, February 27, 2014, available at
  30. Letter from CCSF Chancellor Arthur Tyler to AFT 2121 President Alisa Messer, February 27, 2014, available at In what could only be seen as a provocation, Tyler’s letter was posted on the college’s homepage.
  31. AFT 2121 Leadership Election: Results Are In,” AFT Local 2121, March 12, 2016,
  32. Something to be thankful for: Union power!? AFT 2121 CCSF Pres Says Union Can’t Strike Over 26%,” YouTube, December 13, 2015, The president’s remarks begin around 4:00.
  33. AFT 2121 One-Day Strike for the City College San Francisco Deserves,” AFT Local 2121, May 12, 2016,
  34. CCSF Faculty Reach Tentative Contract Agreement with CCSF District Administration,” AFT Local 2121, July 14, 2016,
  35. AFT 2121 Presentation on Cost of Living in San Francisco,” available at
  36. “CCSF Faculty Reach Tentative Contract Agreement.”
  37. Resolution Calling on the ACCJC to Grant City College of San Francisco Full Accreditation,” AFT Local 2121, September 2015,
2017, Volume 68, Issue 11 (April 2017)
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