As we’ve written before, the SDEA members who formed The Breakfast Club are part of a long, proud tradition of active union members who work to democratically reform our unions to make them more transparent, inclusive, and stronger. One of the most long-standing and well-recognized participants in this union reform movement is the Association for Union Democracy (AUD), an organization that supports grassroots rank-and-file union members like us in our efforts to bring democracy and strength to our unions.
AUD publishes multiple newsletters, and in the December edition of their $100+ Club Newsletter (a newsletter received by members who donate $100 or more), their cover story was about the history of The Breakfast Club! We are re-publishing the article below, and have added hyperlinks throughout the article pointing out relevant links from the SDEA, Breakfast Club, and other websites. This piece serves as a good introduction for SDEA members who are just now learning about The Breakfast Club, so please bookmark it and pass it along to colleagues you believe may be interested. We also encourage you to visit the AUD website, and check out their website and consider becoming a member (plus, they have really cool books and stickers!).
We are incredibly proud and honored that the AUD has chosen to share the work we’re doing within SDEA with other pro-democracy union activists across the country, and we hope you enjoy reading the article as much as we enjoyed writing it.
The Birth, Death, and Rebirth of a Reformist Labor Union: SDEA’s Story
By Shane Parmely, SDEA member and Breakfast Club Reform Caucus leader
As published by the Association for Union Democracy
Meet SDEA: A National Organizing Model
Up until a year ago, my union, the San Diego Education Association (SDEA), was one of the strongest, most powerful teacher unions in the country. What exactly made SDEA such a model for other unions? The unwavering emphasis on organizing to build power by involving members, and making sure that our employer, the San Diego Unified School District, felt that power.
When times got tough, other unions responded by accepting deep cuts. SDEA was unique nationwide in fighting back and winning, stopping layoffs and keeping a strong contract despite the District crying poverty. SDEA’s streak of victory included settling a five-year pair of contracts that included a 7.16% pay increase during a recession as well as groundbreaking workload protections, while simultaneously fighting back almost every single one of the District’s 2,500 educator layoffs over a period of four years. SDEA’s former leadership, including then-President Camille Zombro and then-Executive Director Craig Leedham, directly inspired some of the great work that other unions nationwide have recently done, and was held up as a national model by the National Education Association (NEA).
New World Order
But a new group of union leaders have taken office, most of whom ran unopposed in a union election with incredibly low turnout. This group includes SDEA President Bill Freeman, who initially won election two years ago promising to run the union in the same spirit of Zombro’s presidency and did so with her at his side during his first term. This group campaigned in March promising to maintain SDEA’s path of organizing to fight concessions and layoffs (probably accounting for the lack of opposition and low turnout). But instead Freeman led the SDEA Executive Board in taking a hard turn from SDEA’s previous strong, organizing model to a traditional, concessions-oriented collaborationist union. Executive Director Leedham was pushed out for his objections to this directional shift, and the leadership immediately began to pivot in its stance both toward the District and toward us as members.
For several months after the election local President Freeman publicly maintained a “No Layoffs, No Concessions” stance. In fact, he held a series of all-member meetings across the School District after layoffs were issued, promising to continue to fight layoffs without making concessions. However, Freeman simultaneously began to have private conversations with School Board members about “working together” to address the District’s budget. When former president Camille Zombro publicly blew the whistle in an email to members, Freeman began a campaign to attack and discredit her, even using union resources to do so.
Union Members Organizing Grassroots Anti-Concessions Campaign
This is the environment that gave rise to a group of union members forming an internal reform caucus called the Breakfast Club. With the motto “no waffling” on our contract, we believed that we were supporting the union’s stated position, and that by holding them accountable we would bolster their resolve to stay the course.
But what should have been a normal, democratic conversation within our union sparked a response from Freeman and his pals at the District and on the SDEA Board that was truly disturbing. One of the Breakfast Club’s first actions was to launch a grassroots communications campaign to rally members behind a plan to fight layoffs and avoid concessions. We were shocked when Freeman responded by reaching out to the District school management and asking them, our bosses, to crack down on member-to-member email and District mail communication. The District was more than happy to help, leading to our flyers being pulled from mailboxes by principals and our emails being blocked by the District. When we tried to schedule a meeting of union members to lobby our area’s elected School Board member Richard Barrera to recall layoffs, he refused to meet with us unless Freeman gave his permission. Freeman refused, and told us that we were only supposed to organize actions at our own site, and were not supposed to organize with union members at other schools.
Additionally, male union Board members verbally assaulted me and other female SDEA Breakfast Club members when we attempted to pass out fliers with anti-layoff talking points at the union’s Representative Council meeting (the monthly meeting of the union building reps). One of the Board members actually physically accosted me. This occurred two days after we republished Zombro’s “whistle-blowing” letter on our blog, and I had subsequently been interviewed on the local news about the District’s budget. When we filed a complaint about the assault with SDEA, Freeman took months to “investigate” the incident and in the end refused to interview the witnesses we provided, stating he had already talked to enough people who “didn’t see anything.”
Despite these attempts at obstruction, in less than two weeks, the newly formed Breakfast Club was still able to collect more than 700 signatures on a petition protesting the coming concessions (note: signatures were collected online and in person). We sent delegations to present the petition both to the union leadership and the District leadership at open meetings. Significantly, those 700 signatures comprised roughly 10% of the membership, and more than the total number of members who had even voted in the last union election.
New Leadership Guts Our Contract
But Freeman and his SDEA Board majority ignored the groundswell of protest. They reopened our closed contract and cut a deal with the District to undo the layoffs. To lead his concessions bargaining team, Freeman appointed former SDEA President Terry Pesta —the same one who had been unseated by Zombro’s slate six years before. The team bargained with the District for less than a week, with little to no communication with members about what was being discussed. They reached a deal to buy back layoffs with a massive pay cut, and then led an all out, take-it-or-leave-it pressure blitz forcing members to “choose” between watching their colleagues’ healthcare lapse over the summer or taking deep pay cuts. The union’s pro-concessions campaign received strong support from our concessions-oriented state affiliate California Teachers Association and the National Education Association, both of whom lent staff to SDEA. (CTA and NEA see their dues drop with a loss of membership, but not when we take pay cuts.)
Dozens of Breakfast Club union members campaigned against the concessions agreement outside the union office for twelve hours a day over three days of voting. Our collective sense was that more voters opposed than favored the concessions deal. And so it was shocking to hear that the reported ratification vote was two-thirds in favor, one-third opposed. A two-thirds passage would be far and away the lowest ratification percentage SDEA has ever had — but it is difficult to trust even those results. In a departure from the union’s practice, the vote was conducted without an external “security” envelope requiring the voter’s signature to prevent ballot fraud once the elections committee goes home for the night.
In the end, the leadership’s backshift has predictably resulted in SDEA’s contract going from literally the best in the state to literally the worst in the state in just a matter of months. Not only did they give away the 7.16% raise bargained by the previous leadership (a raise which would finally have brought our pay up to the County median), they bargained 19 furlough days with an associated 10% pay cut — among the most furlough days of any teacher union in the state. Fortunately the majority of the furlough days were pegged to the failure of a state proposition that ultimately passed, with many Breakfast Club members working hard on the union’s campaign. That leaves us with “only” five furlough days — for a total bargained 10% pay cut.
Direct Assault on Democracy
But far worse than what the new leadership has done to our union and our contract is how they have done it. After a failed attempt at a push-poll concessions telephone survey that the leadership abandoned midway, the Board voted to enter negotiations without any prior discussion with the membership. It was not for lack of opportunity. The last Representative Council meeting of the year took place the day before they voted to open the contract, and was attended by nearly 200 angry union members. Yet no mention was made to the Rep. Council that the Board was even contemplating such a decision.
Then on the last day of school, SDEA announced that they had created a concessions bargaining team. They waited to enter negotiations until the vast majority of schools were out for the summer and members were off work, and just days before the laid off members’ healthcare was set to expire. (The previous union leadership had always gotten laid off members’ healthcare extended over the summer without making concessions, and every other union in our District got the summer extension this past year without first making concessions.)
These actions were accompanied by changes to the union’s internal processes as well. Freeman and his Board decided to abandon its right to hire and fire our local Executive Director and turn it over to the state organization, the CTA.
Despite Union Suppression Efforts, Reformers Are In It for the Long Haul
The good news is that we SDEA members are fighting back. The members of the Breakfast Club have filed a petition to recall Freeman and the five other Executive Board members who promised “No Layoffs, No Concessions” but then voted to cut a deal. Predictably, the union’s shenanigans continued. Our Bylaws call for 25% of the membership’s signatures to recall, but SDEA refused to tell us how many signatures are actually necessary. And just as they did last spring, SDEA again worked with the School District management to crack down on member-to-member communication about the recall. Freeman has appointed a new “Bylaws Committee” who are moving to change the Bylaws to give both the District and the union leadership close control over distribution of information to union membership. (Update: The Breakfast Campaign launched a successful campaign to thwart the first round of these anti-democratic changes from the Rep. Council floor.) Ironically, Freeman crushed efforts to change the Bylaws to make our internal union elections more secure, proposals made from the floor at a Representative Council meeting. The list goes on.
What started out as normal, if deep, differences of opinion has now turned into a defense of basic democratic rights. Support for our work is growing. Despite the collaboration between our union and our employer to quash the recall, one group of teachers had already submitted enough signatures to recall their Board member (update: since publication, SDEA denied the recall). No matter what happens with the current recall, the SDEA members of the Breakfast Club are taking the long view. There are six seats open on our Board this spring. If we sweep those seats, we’ll hold a voting majority on the Board as we head into contract bargaining next year, so we’re digging in for a fierce campaign. (Update: Since publication, the Breakfast Club successfully endorsed a candidate for a mid-term open SDEA Board seat, who won handily.)
And we’re building infrastructure. We have active Breakfast Club contacts at almost 40% of our worksites. Our blog has had almost 100,000 hits since its launch in late April. We have compiled a mailing list of 1,000 of SDEA’s 7,000 members. We’re reaching out to forge relationships with reform groups in other teacher unions, because even though we’re acting locally, we’re thinking globally. What is happening to teacher unions as a result of ineffectual and non-responsive union leadership is a national problem, not just a local problem. If teachers are going to protect public education, then we need to force our unions to fight back, not roll over.
For our part, whether it is this year or next year or the year after that, we in the Breakfast Club are determined to seat union leaders who will be honest with us when we disagree, who will champion the interests of the members over the interests of the District, and who will organize to make our union strong again.