We were disappointed by Rick Baum’s attack on our union local, American Federation of Teachers (AFT) 2121, in the April 2017 issue of Monthly Review (“A Teachers Union Against Itself: Organized Labor and the Crisis at City College of San Francisco”). Over the last five years, 2121 has been a main force in defending City College of San Francisco (CCSF) from an accreditation commission that is part of the corporate education “reform” movement. We are writing as members of the Save CCSF Coalition, which brings together students, faculty, community, and staff, working side by side with 2121. Like other faculty in Save CCSF, we are both also longtime union activists.
Fundamentally, Baum got it wrong. The hard-won victories achieved by AFT 2121 in an extremely challenging period should be a model to follow, not to bash. Not only is Baum’s analysis wrong, but it draws completely the opposite lessons than should be learned from the facts on the ground. Baum reads real-world limitations on union power as “timid leadership,” ignoring the actual relationship of forces.
We agree that the union movement over the last forty years has not been sufficiently organized, democratic, independent, or strategic in building power as part of a broader social justice movement. There is plenty of room for discussion of all of this. But 2121 is a social justice union committed to working with community allies. The union organized, acted militantly, and made major gains in a very tough situation: the college was actively threatened with closure, put under a state takeover, and subjected to an endless stream of hostile reporting from the San Francisco Chronicle. From the beginning of the accreditation crisis, the most powerful politicians turned their backs on teachers and students alike.
Considering these challenges, it is remarkable what our union was able to do: fight back fiercely against the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC); mobilize wide community and labor movement participation; and forge close ties to a student movement that brought important community-centered politics and militancy into the wider movement, including the first sit-ins in the college’s eighty-year history. The union led the passage of two parcel taxes to greatly increase college funding and supported state and local progressive tax measures, all successful; compelled the City Attorney to file a lawsuit and bring the ACCJC to court; persuaded the Board of Supervisors and important Bay Area legislators to back CCSF in its fight; secured state stabilization funding for three years and the removal of caps on enrollment growth for five more years; attracted the organizational and legal support of the California Federation of Teachers (CFT) and the American Federation of Teachers; pulled off a successful strike with wide community support and a substantial pay increase; sent speakers up and down the state to other community colleges and to national education conferences; put pressure on administrators to oppose class cancellations and downsizing; mobilized support for “sanctuary college” status and against the arming of campus police; played an important role in getting a progressive majority elected to the Board of Trustees; and—finally!—achieved full re-accreditation. The union’s most visionary action was to build for the passage of the Free City College initiative, the most progressive and inclusive “free college” legislation in the country, based on a tax on luxury real estate transactions.
It is worth noting that these achievements demanded an exhausting pace of work for nearly five years, and continuing still. The union has also significantly strengthened its leadership capabilities: hundreds of people have become self-confident public speakers and organizers; have developed a much wider view of the college and its budget; and have developed a deeper understanding of corporate education reform and issues such as sanctuary and gentrification. Most of these leaders are women, whose contributions are too often rendered invisible.
With this background in mind, we would like to respond more directly to several points in Baum’s article:
- Contrary to the author’s assertions, AFT 2121 did mobilize the faculty and the community, not only against the state takeover, but also against the administration and the state Board of Governors.
- CFT President Pechthalt did not contradict himself when he wrote both that “we believe the court and legislative process will right the wrong done to CCSF,” and that “we know relying on the politicians and the courts is futile.” Neither is sufficient; both are necessary.
- AFT 2121’s decision not to discuss the lawsuit before its filing was a tactical one, meant to surprise the ACCJC. It was a wise choice.
- Baum argues that the union should have made more specific demands of the ACCJC, the Board of Governors, and Mayor Lee. In fact, our demands were quite clear: AFT 2121 and CFT requested that the dis-accreditation decision be overturned, that CCSF be fully re-accredited, and that fair accreditation standards be put in place for all community colleges.
- It is true that AFT 2121 settled the fall 2013 contract with many concessions. However, Baum seems oblivious to the reality of the situation. There was not nearly enough membership support for a strike, and in fact there was much pressure on the faculty not to “damage the school with any work actions.” A strike without faculty commitment is doomed to failure. It was not until after our contract campaign ended in July 2016 that faculty organizing was strong enough to sustain and win a strike. When it was, we went on strike—only the fourth strike in the history of California community colleges, and the first ever at City College.
Baum seems to equate union democracy with greater labor militancy. In the real world, this is simply not feasible. The union—which engaged in thousands of hours of volunteer phone banking and visited hundreds of members in their homes—did not make this facile assumption. That is why the organizing the union did among our faculty, students, and the community was necessary and successful. Militancy without support leads to losses, not gains. Through years of experience, our union knows that the will to struggle must be won one conversation and one meeting at a time.
- When Baum refers to the union officers’ election in spring 2016, he is correct that the turnout was 30 percent, but fails to mention that just before those elections, we organized a strike! The leadership’s focus was not on winning an election, but on winning a strike.
- The strike authorization vote had the highest rate of participation ever in our local, because we organized to turn out the vote. This support also extended to the wider community: the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, which includes members who are not friendly to unions, unanimously passed a resolution supporting the strike.
- Baum strongly criticizes the 2016 contract settlement after the strike. He is entitled to his view. But clearly it was not the view of our members, who voted overwhelmingly in favor of the contract, 574 to 16, or 97 percent to 3 percent.
In every union struggle in the country, we can find a few people who position themselves as “lefter than thou” perpetual critics. Nevertheless, the attempts to break AFT 2121 have been beaten back and, despite the many challenges, we are stronger than ever.
AFT 2121 Labor Council delegate and former president (2000–04)
AFT 2121 Executive Board member
Rick Baum never links the attack on the school to the broader crisis facing San Francisco’s low-income and working-class communities and communities of color. He describes the problem as “a disastrous collision of corporate education reform, administrative arrogance, and timid, undemocratic union leadership.” But the City College drama is unfolding alongside the mass displacement of the very communities the school serves. To understand and respond to the situation, we need to look at the ways education “reform” and gentrification intersect—and how the fight against reducing public education to corporate workforce training fits into the broader resistance against racialized displacement in San Francisco.
It can often seem like nearly every longtime resident of San Francisco has some connection to City College. The school trains the city’s police and firefighters, medical technicians, and chefs; offers students a second chance, a way into life in the United States, a path to lifelong learning. Students, teachers, and communities worked hard to make it this way by fighting for arts and ethnic studies programs, and for campuses in Chinatown and the predominantly Latino—but rapidly gentrifying—Mission District.
Corporate education “reformers” took issue with CCSF’s community vision. The ACCJC administered the “shock treatment” to downsize the school and force conformity with the “reform” agenda. Who benefits? The “reformers,” with their interests in the student loan business and private colleges, and the real estate developers salivating over prime public land owned by City College—both amply represented at high levels of the Democratic Party establishment that controls the city and the state.
San Francisco now stands as one of the least affordable, most unequal cities in the country. Waves of displacement have shrunk its African American community to less than 4 percent of the city’s population and fragmented other communities of color. As low-income and even middle-class families are evicted from San Francisco, students are likewise being pushed out of City College. The downsizing that followed the accreditation attack slashed CCSF’s student body from more than 90,000 to around 66,000; more than three-fourths of the school’s students are people of color.
The state (in this case the Community College Board of Governors) imposed emergency management to achieve its policy aims. While CCSF’s elected board of trustees was suspended during the crisis, these emergency managers made many decisions that badly hurt enrollment. The emergency managers also started selling off college property, beginning with an administration building near downtown. That parcel will soon be developed for luxury housing, and students and faculty are fighting a proposal to move the people who worked there into some of the newest and best of CCSF’s classrooms, displacing up to 150 classes.
Developer-friendly Mayor Ed Lee keeps seeking to undermine the landmark Free City College program, approved by the Board of Supervisors and funded by voters last fall; his office is also pushing the Balboa Reservoir project, which would transfer one of the city’s largest parcels of public land into private hands—and seize a huge CCSF parking lot, again for luxury housing development. This would deal another body blow to the commuter school.
As this quick sketch shows, the fight for City College is intimately tied to the broader fight for the right to the city. In their excellent response, Allan Fisher and Wynd Kaufmyn of the Save CCSF Coalition detail the work that AFT 2121 and community allies have done to keep the school open. But the work to rebuild and reclaim it continues. Interested readers may find more information on the links between education reform and gentrification in a recent series of articles in the journal Race, Poverty & the Environment, where I am a contributing editor, at http://reimaginerpe.org.
Rick Baum replies
Nowhere in their letter do Fisher and Kaufmyn contend that AFT 2121 is transparent or operates democratically, with members deciding strategy and goals. When members own the decisions made, mobilizing them is far easier, with greater potential for faster, more favorable results.
Fisher and Kaufmyn’s description of events at CCSF gives AFT 2121 credit for many positive outcomes. Unfortunately, their one-sided picture grossly exaggerates the union’s achievements. It ignores the steep price that continues to be paid, including the ongoing administration class cuts that have resulted in fewer educational opportunities for CCSF’s students.
Fisher and Kaufmyn must know that during the first year of the accreditation crisis, AFT 2121, despite having an office and paid staff and officers, was largely missing in action.1 That is what gave rise to the faculty-led group of volunteers, Fightback to Save CCSF, that included community members and was responsible for the first major action, a rally and boycott of the CCSF chancellor’s speech before the start of the spring 2013 term. Fightback would merge with a student group to form the Coalition to Save CCSF, and put together the first major rally in downtown San Francisco in the spring of 2013. It, and not AFT 2121, was responsible for initiating and organizing the largest protest during the entire accreditation crisis in July 2013 that drew in politicians, some for the first time. In August, shortly after that protest against the ACCJC’s closure decision, the state decided to audit the ACCJC, the city attorney launched his legal action and secured an injunction blocking the shutdown, and the U.S. Department of Education sanctioned the commission. Unfortunately, the coalition changed after the protest. There would not be another comparable mass action, unless one counts the one-day strike almost three years later.
Fisher and Kaufmyn assert that AFT 2121 demanded “that CCSF be fully re-accredited.” That is astonishing. At rallies held during court proceedings for City Attorney Dennis Herrera’s case against the ACCJC, AFT 2121 did not demand that the judge rule in favor of full accreditation. Would mobilizing a mass of people to voice this demand have made a difference? We will never know. The judge did rule in 2015 that the ACCJC acted illegally when deciding to close CCSF, but did not reverse its closure decision.
When a resolution calling for the full accreditation of CCSF came before an AFT 2121 membership meeting in the fall of 2015, union leaders opposed it and lost the vote by a large margin. Ignoring this membership decision and the endorsement of the resolution by San Francisco’s labor council, they managed to prevent a vote on it at the California Federation of Teachers (CFT) state convention.2 Later, when the resolution was under consideration at a CFT Executive Council meeting, AFT 2121’s president expressed opposition to it and succeeded in gaining a unanimous vote against it. The members made a decision supposedly consistent with the union’s demands, and officers then went out of their way to oppose it. Is this how a “social justice union” operates?
Furthermore, Fisher and Kaufmyn claim AFT 2121 “led” the efforts to pass a regressive land parcel tax and its renewal.3 In June 2016, AFT 2121’s president sent out a strong message against the renewal of the parcel tax on the November 8 ballot.4 Soon thereafter, union leaders agreed to a contract in which pay would be tied to the passage of the renewal of the parcel tax, and then flip-flopped and expressed support for it.
Although CCSF is now fully accredited, the college still faces further downsizing by an administration that plans to continue cutting classes by 5 percent each year for at least the next four years. During contract negotiations, which would have been a good time for fighting the cuts, AFT 2121 leaders asserted that the class cuts could not be negotiated, even though the administration’s pay offer and the final settlement were clearly tied to the cutting of classes. Under the contract that Fisher and Kaufmyn claim provides “a substantial pay increase,” many faculty are injured from the loss of classes or, even worse, their jobs.
These cuts will also harm AFT 2121, since it will have fewer dues-paying members. At the same time, those who keep their jobs are expected to be more productive, that is, to teach larger classes. It is difficult to see how a college with fewer teachers pressured to teach larger classes, for salaries with severely diminished purchasing power compared to a decade earlier, represents, as Fisher and Kaufmyn call it, “a model to follow.”
In December, AFT 2121 leaders agreed to the college administration’s downsizing proposal to offer a payment to 100 senior full-time faculty to encourage them to retire early while promising to replace only half of them over the next five years. As has typically been the case, little information was put forward about this proposal and no meeting was called for all members to discuss and decide what the union’s position should be.
Fisher and Kaufmyn attribute to me views I never expressed (I did not, for instance, call for a strike in 2013). They then suggest I am an out-of-touch ultra-leftist. By contrast, they portray the leaders of AFT 2121 as overseeing a union that is “stronger than ever,” even though it represents fewer and fewer faculty. The union’s main “strength” seems to be accommodating austerity and maintaining a top-down, undemocratic form of leadership that excludes rank-and-file members from important decisions. Such all-too-common failures of leadership only hurt the labor movement at a time when it is already gravely threatened.
All struggles have multiple dimensions, and Marcy Rein is right that the effort to save CCSF is tied to a “broader fight.” The focus of my article was on the corporatization of higher education and the problematic responses of a faculty union leadership.
In an overdeveloped city with little available land, the accreditation crisis and the state-imposed CCSF administration policies have resulted in a college with fewer students and a smaller budget. Both provide excuses for selling off or leasing school property to “developers” seeking to erect commercial buildings, or to build housing that is unaffordable to most students, and even to many of CCSF’s faculty and staff.
Missing from Rein’s letter is an evaluation of what has been done and what can be done to “rebuild and reclaim” CCSF to prevent further gentrification and the “mass displacement of the communities the school serves.” I wrote that a start would be greater union democracy.
- ↩During the first year of the crisis, AFT 2121’s only significant action was to file the legal complaint against the ACCJC, in the spring of 2013. Members were not involved in this decision. Fisher and Kaufmyn claim this “wise choice” was made “to surprise the ACCJC.” They explain neither what was “wise” about it, nor what it achieved. What we do know is that three months after the complaint was filed, the ACCJC decided to close CCSF. As to “surprising” the ACCJC, many of the ideas in the complaint were already available to the commission in former CFT president Marty Hittelman’s “ACCJC Gone Wild.”
- ↩Tim Paulson, “Resolution Calling on the ACCJC to Grant City College of San Francisco Full Accreditation,” San Francisco Labor Council, January 11, 2016, http://sflaborcouncil.org.
- ↩The tax is a flat $79 on every parcel in the city, whether it is the site of an office tower or a shack.
- ↩“Fool us once…” AFT 2121, June 21, 2016, http://aft2121.org
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