AFT Weighs in on Kasparian
By Jim Miller
Last week I dedicated my column to outlining how, despite the emergence of inspiring protests in the streets and amongst the progressive base, many key Democratic figures in Congress and in the national leadership of the building trades unions still didn’t seem to understand what time it was. Sadly, it only took a few more days to see a couple of stunning examples of how not to be the resistance right here in San Diego.
On January 26th, Jessica Hayes, the newly elected chair of the San Diego County Democratic Party, took advantage of her presence at a forum hosted by the Democrats for Equality entitled “#The Resistance: Women Lead the Way” to attack not the dangerous plutocrats running the country, but a key element of the Democratic base: unions.
Parroting the Rhetoric of Corporate Education “Reformers”
Labor lawyer and local Democratic party activist Ricardo Ochoa said on a social media post after the forum that he was feeling frustrated because:
Our local Party leader, at a forum on how to #resist Trump, decides to parrot the anti-union rhetoric of corporate education “reformers” in Democrats for Education Reform by blaming unions for the challenges faced by urban schools. We can’t fight Betsy DeVos for Education Secretary if we’re going to parrot her anti-union talking points. Instead, we should be standing with Democrats for Public Education in resisting the right-wing agenda of the California Charter Schools Association.
I had been up in Los Angeles to present the recommendations of the California Federation of Teacher’s Climate Justice Taskforce to the CFT Executive Board along with other colleagues who were presenting the findings of the CFT’s Racial Justice Taskforce, so it was dismaying to come home after spending the weekend with fellow unionists gearing up to fight a full court press assault from the Trump administration while still holding true to our progressive principles to learn that my union and the organization that represents my colleagues in K-12 was being attacked by the new head of the local Democratic Party.
“We Took on the Unions”
When I contacted Mr. Ochoa for a comment, he offered the following:
On January 26, Democrats for Equality (the largest Democratic club in the County) held a forum at its monthly membership meeting, billed as “#TheResistance: Women Leading the Way” to talk about how to build the resistance to the Trump administration. It was an overflow crowd of nearly 200 people, the vast majority of whom had never been to a club meeting before and had been mobilized in large part by the momentum embodied by the Women’s March.
At the end of the program, the last question from the audience for the panel was from a resident of D4, who was saying that when she walks precincts in her neighborhood at election time, people say “you Democrats only come around at election time, asking for our vote. After the election, we never see you. And we still have lack of jobs, crime in our community and children finishing elementary school who can’t read at a 3rd-grade level. What do you say to them?” Jessica Hayes, who had been elected Chair of the San Diego County Democratic Party just nine days earlier, responded by saying something like “we supported two candidates for school board in that area because those schools are failing those kids and the Board members don’t care. So the Party supported these challengers. And we had to take on the teacher unions who wanted to protect their Board members even though they are failing our communities. But we took on the labor unions in those elections.”
A few minutes later, as Jessica was leaving the event, she walked by me and I said to her “Jessica, that was bullshit for you to bash teachers’ unions that way.” She responded by saying “those schools are failing those students.” I responded “you can’t blame the teachers’ unions for the achievement gap. That’s just anti-union corporate education ‘reform’ rhetoric. It’s not the unions’ fault” She retorted “I didn’t bash them undeservedly. It is their fault because they are protecting Board members who don’t care.” Then she left in a hurry.
That evening I posted about it on FB, saying “We can’t fight Betsy DeVos for Education Secretary if we’re going to parrot her anti-union talking points.” Jessica responded by slandering the current Board of San Diego Unified, saying “How many members of the SDUSD Board or the Superintendent send or have sent their own children to charter schools? Where will you send your children? And if not to their schools why is it ok for them to live with it?” To which folks in SDEA responded “None of the Board members send or sent their kids to charters. The candidate supported by the local Democratic party and the charter lobby did but she was defeated by working people, union members, and those who believe in democratic public education.”
Our Communities Deserve Better
And, as to the broader issue of blaming teachers for the achievement gap, I responded:
Jessica, nobody is disputing that urban schools face real challenges, including a significant performance gap with suburban schools. But where we apparently differ is how to assign responsibility for that.
My son attends Kimball Elementary, which serves an overwhelmingly working poor, immigrant, ELL community in National City. He comes home with stories of classmates whose parents are locked up or who recently got deported, whose siblings are in gangs and/or on drugs, whose family members have been lost to violence, and/or who are being raised by grandparents because their biological parents are unable/unwilling to care for them, who come and go from the District mid-year because their parents got evicted from their housing because they can’t afford the rent. Many of these children act out in violent manners with each other because that is all they have witnessed at home or in the streets. His classmates’ parents/guardians often struggle to buy their children backpacks for school, never mind being able to offer the enrichment opportunities to which kids in suburban schools have access. Every teacher purchases snacks to keep in the classroom because they know that some kids arrive to school so hungry they cannot concentrate. Every Friday, the school sends some kids home with bags of food so that they will get enough nutrition over the weekend to be able to focus come Monday. Every year, during the school book fair, there are countless children longingly looking at the books for sale but unable to afford to purchase any. And I could go on.
My heart breaks for his classmates. And I don’t know how we as a society can reasonably expect children to focus on education when there is so much instability surrounding them. But I will be damned if I am going to allow anybody to hold the schools, the teachers, or their unions responsible for all those societal ills.
You want to fix the achievement gap? Let’s ensure all families have not only a living wage but job security and affordable, comprehensive health care coverage. Let’s implement a WPA-style jobs program which allows everybody to enjoy the dignity of contributing their labor to better our society. Let’s get rid of red-lining and racist NIMBYism. Let’s fix our criminal justice system. Let’s ensure substance abuse and mental health treatment is available to all. And let’s implement a confiscatory tax system which eliminates the funding disparities between suburban schools and urban schools.
To pretend that all these problems can be cured by beating up on our school districts is to sing a siren song. Our communities deserve better.
As a parent with a son in a San Diego public school, I find Ms. Hayes’ statements as offensive and off target as Mr. Ochoa does because I too see the hard work and dedication of my son’s teachers every day. Furthermore, as a member of one of the unions she cites who thoroughly interviewed all the board candidates involved in those races, it is clear to me that she doesn’t have any idea what she is talking about with regard to the candidates’ understanding of educational issues and the needs of students.
Ms. Hayes’ assertion also implies that her preferred candidates, who were both soundly defeated in the fall election, somehow lost illegitimately because of the unions. This simple-minded bit of union-bashing is certainly easier than entertaining the uncomfortable possibility that the public simply found the progressive, Democratic, labor-supported career educators to be better qualified than Ms. Hayes’ favorites despite her neoliberal tilt on education.
Ms. Hayes’ glib statement that the board members in question are people who “don’t care” about their students was severely undercut the day after the forum when the San Diego Community College District Board of Trustees unanimously passed a resolution standing in solidarity with immigrant students and those in the DACA program in the face of the Trump administration’s recent attacks on these and other groups. That, unlike Ms. Hayes’ shameful performance, is what principled resistance looks like.
When one considers that this embarrassing incident came at the same time as a historic wave of opposition was building against Betsy DeVos, Trump’s horrendous pick for Secretary of Education, it boggles the mind.
When one further reflects on the fact that with National Right to Work legislation on the way along with a right-wing Supreme Court justice destined to gut public sector union rights, it is even more flabbergasting given the fact that the entire reason the right wants to kill unions is because they are one of the central funding and mobilization sources for the Democratic Party. At a moment when progressives and the Democratic party need to be figuring out how to counterpunch, alienating the base of the party doesn’t seem like a very wise move.
Thus, the notion that part of what it will take to resist Trump is to “take on the labor unions” is not just dangerously ill-advised, it is political malpractice of the highest order.
The Elephant in the Room: San Diego Labor Distracted by the Wrong Crisis
The last few weeks have also held its challenges for local labor leadership as protesters, including Donna Frye and Irene McCormack, picketed outside the monthly delegates meeting at which there was no mention whatsoever of the elephant in the room, the lawsuits filed against Labor Council President Mickey Kasparian and what this means for local labor at this perilous moment in the history of the movement. For my early January column on this subject, go here.
The next week, at my union’s first meeting of 2017, the executive board of the American Federation of Teachers, Local 1931 voted to issue the following statement which I will let speak for itself:
AFT Statement on the Allegations Against Labor Council President Mickey Kasparian
The American Federation of Teachers, Local 1931 believes that the charges against San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council President Mickey Kasparian are deeply disturbing and that Sandy Naranjo, Isabel Vasquez, and Anabel Arauz deserve to be taken seriously and treated with respect.
While Mr. Kasparian has done many good things for the local labor movement over the years and has the right to due process, we believe the honorable thing for him to do, while this process unfolds, is to take a leave of absence from his position as Labor Council President until this matter has been resolved.
Nonetheless, the bottom line is that as the labor movement faces existential threats in the near-future, our focus should be on the fate of working people as a whole, not on the controversy surrounding one leader. It is imprudent to drag the entire San Diego labor movement through this difficult process, forcing parties outside of the UFCW to choose sides in a matter that, at this point, can only be resolved through the legal system. It may be in the interest of Mr. Kasparian to take this position, but it is certainly not in the best interests of the entire local labor movement to do so.
Further, as a progressive labor union that believes in fighting for the rights of workers, women, and people of color, we cannot summarily dismiss these charges, as some have done, until the complaints have been thoroughly and independently investigated. To date, there has been no formal internal process to investigate these charges in the Labor Council nor, as far as we know, inside the UFCW. Our leaders have privately urged this course of action be taken and now, given the inaction we see, we feel it necessary to call for such a process publicly as an organization whose members care deeply about not just due process but also the rights of women in the workplace.
We are not a movement of union leaders only, so we need to stand for all workers, regardless of their status in labor leadership. Thus, we call on Mr. Kasparian to step down from his position as Labor Council President until these matters have been resolved.