A Teachers Union against Itself: Organized Labor and the Crisis at City College of San Francisco

By Baum, Rick | Monthly Review, April 2017 | Go to article overview

A Teachers Union against Itself: Organized Labor and the Crisis at City College of San Francisco


Baum, Rick, Monthly Review


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. …

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