Long Beach teachers face debate over union

March 28, 2008

LONG BEACH, Calif.--Superintendent Chris Steinhauser of the Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD) is trying to capitalize on California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's manufactured crisis by declaring a fiscal freeze.

Steinhauser used the budget crisis to cajole union teachers into backing off their non-salary demands as part of negotiations over a contract reopener. Many union members felt they might lose a 4.5 percent cost-of-living adjustment and pay raises retroactive to July 1, so the Teachers Association of Long Beach (TALB) bargaining team dropped about three dozen proposals, such as installing air filters in classrooms, which are badly needed in a region dominated by heavy industry. The proposal was ratified by 98 percent of members who voted.

Despite the fact that the district is expected to end the year with a $100 million surplus, LBUSD has used the idea of a looming crisis to freeze all discretionary accounts and scuttle autonomy at individual school sites.

After years of fighting for true Site-based Decision Making (detailed and encouraged by the California Education Code), district officials are reserving for themselves the right to veto spending.

The TALB leadership, which is involved in a consuming fight over the direction of the union, has struggled to direct its attention to the district's new offensive. Progressive forces in the union have had to expend a great deal of energy staving off a desperate and destructive bid by the "go-along-to-get-along" union bureaucracy, which has been on the defensive for the last three years.

Since last June, these officials have organized a complete disruption of the union's ability to function. First, nine of 16 board members fired Executive Director Scott McVarish, who had led much of the substantive change in the union.

When the representative council overrode them and put McVarish back on the job, the same nine members of the board began a scorched-earth campaign, suing their opponents for slander and spending $27,000 of the union's money investigating embezzlement that didn't exist.

While the battle raged, officials from the California Teachers Association (CTA) jumped into the fray, professing that their neutrality could help settle the standoff. But the CTA's real interest is to insure that the TALB, which pays $3 million in dues annually to the CTA, doesn't disaffiliate, an idea which some on the progressive side had considered as a response to the CTA's support of McVarish's firing.

Former CTA president Barbara Kerr came out of retirement to inject the CTA into the Long Beach debate. Kerr began by limiting the powers of the board of directors, the representative council and the membership--and she headed off a campaign to increase union democracy by giving the old guard control over rewriting the union's bylaws.

The internal audit has cleared McVarish of intentional wrongdoing, but he has since resigned. The most significant battle yet will take place through upcoming board elections, in which six of the nine old-guard board members are up for reelection.

A progressive slate is running fgor each of those six seats (including this writer as treasurer), and only one of the three progressive board members up for re-election is being opposed.

It's a good sign that many union members are responding to this threat from the old guard by organizing to drive them out of office.

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