Member Post: A Open Letter from Camille Zombro

Dear SDEA Members,

I am writing to you because our union, and so our public schools, are under attack as never before. For the first time in five years, I believe our union leadership may be on the verge of accepting deep wage and benefit cuts, allowing massive layoffs, or possibly even both—and unless we as union members come together and act NOW, I fear that this possibility will become an inevitability. This is an incredibly difficult letter for me to write to you. But as the sitting Vice President of our union, I am not willing to look back and regret that I didn’t open up about my concerns about where our union is rapidly heading simply because of the inevitable backlash this letter will trigger from some members of SDEA’s leadership.

For the past 14 years, I have dedicated myself to our collective cause within SDEA: to improve the lives of educators and the students we serve by organizing to build power and solidarity across our education and labor communities. At the core of this commitment is democracy, which forms the foundation of our union, and is the key to building power by engaging members in all aspects of our union’s work and direction. Unfortunately I am writing to you today because our democracy – the open and sometimes raucous debate that defines us – is being threatened as current SDEA leadership shifts the direction of our union while actively working to discredit those who are speaking up against these actions.


This email is long, and I probably should have sent it four months ago. But for the sake of our collective future, I ask that you read to the end, and start some critical conversations with your fellow SDEA members.

Our Union Is at a Crossroads

With the active support and hard work of thousands of you, I was proud to work with our staff and leadership in shifting the culture of SDEA to one that is strong, member-driven, and assertive in winning and defending our contract. While our union’s successes are certainly a collective point of pride, I must credit the architect of this transformation: Craig Leedham, our staff organizer and Executive Director. The victories that Craig and I worked with all of you to achieve in a four-year period include: organizing to turn back over 2,500 layoffs over three years (when every other large District in California suffered massive permanent layoffs); a successful member-driven bargaining campaign to win a five-year closed contract with new workload protections and a seven-percent pay increase; and, successive school board and other electoral victories. These victories belong to all of SDEA’s membership, and are a testament to our collective commitment to a union that starts and ends with member organizing. Together we are stronger.

A Torch Extinguished

When my presidency ended in 2010, I proudly passed the torch to Bill Freeman, a site Association Rep. who told all of us he believed in (and campaigned on) our model of strong, member-driven unionism. Unfortunately, it is increasingly obvious that Bill is no longer committed to that vision. Rather than lead an aggressive fight to hold the School Board accountable for their unnecessary layoffs, he is now taking dramatic and abrupt steps to systematically dismantle the very foundation of the powerful union we have built: our democracy, our transparent communication with membership, and our tough stance in defending our jobs and our contract.


Instead of launching an organizing plan to fight layoffs, our union leadership spent March and April conducting membership meetings to “set the direction” of SDEA. That’s not how you win back jobs; that’s how you start building toward concessions. The question has NEVER before been whether we protect our jobs or our contract. A strong union with a culture of organizing protects BOTH. Bill’s desire for a more positive relationship with the District has positioned us such that for the first time, we might actually see more than 1,000 of our brothers and sisters lose their jobs this year. This is not necessary, and we should not be in this position.

Those of us inside the SDEA building have seen this coming for some time, resulting in a tug-of-war within the office over the fundamental direction of our union. On one side of SDEA’s tug-of-war have been Craig and I and thousands of you, fighting to keep SDEA’s contract closed while saving our valuable coworkers’ jobs. On the other side are Bill, a portion of the SDEA Board and a portion of the SDEA staff who want to “collaborate” with the District, possibly open the contract, resulting in significant salary and benefit concessions in the hopes that the District will reduce layoffs.

A Political Purge

The stark reality is that Bill is driving out the opposition – me, Craig, and anyone else who pushes back. Bill has led the SDEA Board to demand Craig’s resignation after two months of unexplained paid administrative leave, and threw me out of the meeting where the decision was debated. Despite a permanent, legally binding contract (much like the one you and I enjoy), and a perfect performance record, Craig is being forced out with no just cause or progressive discipline, no chance to tell his side of the story, and without ever even being told what, if anything, he had been accused of. That should horrify anyone who believes their contract protects their employment status.

For the last two months, I have also experienced a level of personal harassment and villification that I won’t detail, but that no worker deserves to experience in the workplace or in her union. While I believe our SDEA Board Members are good and well-intentioned people, they are operating on information funneled only through Bill Freeman and his new agenda. While we have been told his new agenda is built on “open lines of communication” with SDUSD, the fact is that those “open lines” have been defined by secret meetings, ineffective organizing plans, and a lockdown on members’ ability to hold the School Board accountable for the terrible decisions they are now making. This is exactly the sort of undemocratic behavior that prompted me and a slate of fellow union members to run for office and take back our union back in 2006, and it’s just as unacceptable today as it was six years ago.

How Did We Get Here?

I must own that I have been somewhat checked out for the last year. I gave birth to an amazing little boy last October, dove headlong into the difficult work of organizing non-union charter schools, and thought I could turn my back to the trustworthy hands at the SDEA office. By the time I realized the tectonic shift that had taken place is was too late. I chose not to campaign for my reelection as Vice President because I knew by election time that I could no longer support the direction Bill Freeman was taking SDEA. This is not sour grapes, it is simply a recognition that we – all of us – needed to stay vigilant but we didn’t. We dropped the ball when fewer than 10% of members voted in the election – an election where three of four officer seats were completely uncontested – and when we failed to mobilize even 200 members for the recent membership meetings where the agenda was purportedly to “set the direction of SDEA.”

Let’s be real. Unlike any time in recent years, we are in a tailspin with no viable plan to recall the layoffs while protecting our contract, and no sign the District is feeling any pressure. In fact, SDUSD is stepping up their aggression toward us because they can see it is working this time. The very public smear campaign against both Craig and me, with no defense from SDEA leadership, signaled to the District that the opposition to concessions is now out of the way. The District thinks it’s not a matter of IF our union is making concessions, but WHEN.

It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way

So how do we get through this with our union intact? We step up our involvement and we stay involved. I sent this email to just about every teacher in the District I personally know. I know a lot of people… and so do you! Forward this email, tell them to forward it, and follow up with conversations because, as I always say, a flier or an email are only as good as the conversations that go with them.

Link arms with other SDEA members – don’t wait for someone to tell you what to do! In just one example, a group of teachers from several schools across SDUSD have formed the “Breakfast Club” (which SDEA leadership will likely discredit as a “splinter group” or a “divisive force”). They are a passionate and articulate pocket of SDEA members who are working together to push back against layoffs AND concessions – the core of the SDEA agenda – and I will be proud to start getting involved with their efforts as they grow. Check them out and join up with them.

Hard to believe, but as long as this email is, there’s actually a lot more to the story of why our union is where it is. On the Breakfast Club website here, you will also find articles about:

  • Has SDEA Already Opened Our Contract?
  • YOU Are Also An Employer
  • Why Organizing Matters
  • Why CTA Is Really Our “Frenemy”

I encourage you to spend some time reading, researching, and responding. If we’re going to get our union back on track, it’s going to take all of us getting informed and then getting engaged. And if you need help starting these discussions with your colleagues or getting your site organized, call me. I’ve never been happier than when I was a rank-and-file union member working with other union members to make our union strong from the grassroots up, and I’m looking forward to getting back to that real and empowering work together with all of you.

As I said, this was an incredibly difficult email to write. I fully expect that as a result of my sending this letter to you, SDEA’s leadership will retaliate swiftly and soundly, as they have towards other attempts at dissent in recent months (just look at what they did to Craig Leedham for steadfastly refusing to consider contractual concessions), whether through some formal act or merely a continued whisper campaign. But it is my genuine hope that we can trigger an open and honest debate about these issues within SDEA.

I ask that if you have any questions or concerns, or if you are approached with allegations about me after reading this, that you reach out to me directly. I am the same person you knew when I was president. I have the same commitment to our union that I always have, and I welcome the opportunity to have some candid conversations from those of you who share that commitment.

I look forward to continuing to work with you to take our union back, from the ground up.


With much love and solidarity,
Camille Zombro

18 thoughts on “Member Post: A Open Letter from Camille Zombro

  1. You can’t be president forever, just as you set the members direction during your term, Bill is now making his own decisions.

  2. Sure. And like every elected official, Bill Freeman can and should be held accountable by his constituents when they’re not pleased with the decisions he’s making.

  3. Truth is Bill Freeman is doing a poor job of what he was elected to do, organize and represent teachers. Bill is obviously afraid of Camille, so afraid that he wishes to change by-laws to circumvent the democratic process. I guess I’d be afraid too when only 700 teachers voted in the election that ousted Camille.

  4. Please leave charter schools alone. I have seen great, young, energetic, smart teachers in SDUSD have their job status decided by drawing straws or the last four of their social security number. Rejecting all forms of teacher evaluation and only protecting older teachers is wrong. Department heads and principles are capable and should be allowed to evaluate teachers. Please do not take this away from charter schools. It is your lack of athentic conversations and preaching of hate and mistrust that is killing off good teachers.

    • Low wages and poor working conditions, along with long hours are what is killing off teachers. I have $25,000 in student loans that I am paying off and a pay cut is not what I need right now. I need to know that the 10 years of schooling I have is worth something. In addition, having to go back and get an autism certificate to teach children I have been teaching for the last ten years is absurd. Why don’t general education teachers need this additional training? Why am I spending $1500 for a class with no benefit?

  5. Camille,
    Two years ago, didn’t you and Craig look at the status of the California economy and recommend that members make concessions?

  6. Tony, I can’t speak for Camille, you’re comparing apples and oranges here. After two years of bargaining when our contract was *open*, SDEA was on the brink of being taken to impasse and having a contract with severe concessions imposed. Remember, the District was seeking an 8% pay cut. The bargaining team came to us regarding furlough days in exchange for future salary restorations. Today, we have a *closed* contract. There is no threat of being taken to impasse and having a contract a imposed *unless* we willingly open our contract. The decision had nothing to do with the California economy. It everything to do with where our union was in the bargaining process at the time. Please click on the SDEA Contract FAQ tab at the top of the page to read more about the possible outcomes of opening our contract.

  7. The issue is not just with our local district, board members and the union, it is the state and federal budget and the people we have elected to represent us. There is a huge disparity between the haves and have nots, and it is only going to continue to get worse unless we stand up and demand that our representatives start doing the job they were elected to do.

    • There is a huge disparity between the elder teachers and the younger staff who face the layoffs each year. Elder teachers with no graduate level degrees and trouble using the latest technology and effective teaching methods are being maintained at the expense of more qualified younger staff. Additionally, with free health care for all, younger staff with less dependants are subsidizing the larger families of elder teachers. SDUSD has some of the lowest salaries for teachers with less than 10 years of experience. Consider the effects of the union next time your student loans come due. The union has grown to only protect the older teachers and the rhetoric of creators of this website is doing nothing but supporting the status quo.

      • Wow! You are making some huge assumptions.
        When 17 years was made the top of the pay scale, “elder” teachers effectively had their pay frozen for the rest of their career unless they could move across the pay scale. As for technology, we go to the same trainings as younger teachers to learn about what’s new and we do keep up on new teaching methods and the changing vocabulary of our profession. Yes, despite our advancing age,we can still learn and apply new ideas PLUS we already know how to correctly spell principal (a reference to your earlier post). As far as health care… what data do you have to support your statements? Elder teachers have just as much variety of family size and number of dependents as young teachers. Please consider the wisdom and experience of your elders before attacking the union. We work with you and are as committed to our students and the teaching profession as we were when we were paying off our student loans and writing on chalkboards.

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  13. Thanks Raineeg for responding to Socem’s discriminatory remarks. Some of the older teachers i know are very good with technology and many older teachers’ kids are grown and no longer under the health care policies of their parents, unlike the younger teachers’ kids.

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