CTA’s long history is full of the sounds of school strikes and teachers chanting on picket lines, the shouts of victory on countless election nights, and the quiet conversations of educators waiting to speak out in crucial legislative hearings held over the decades in Sacramento.
It’s the sound of teachers making history — and making their voices heard across the state. Today, CTA members are still voting, striking, bargaining and organizing for students, for better communities, and for the respect, benefits and salaries that educators and education support professionals deserve.
The 325,000-member CTA is affiliated with the 3.2 million-member National Education Association, and both are among the largest unions in the country. Neither is officially affiliated with the AFL-CIO, but both work effectively at the state and national levels with all major players in the labor movement to build and protect the middle class and working families.
Some CTA members, especially younger teachers, may not know that the rights they take for granted today were won on picket lines, in courtrooms, and in hard-fought political campaigns decades ago, says Marc Sternberger, a CTA activist for 30 years. As president of the Pittsburg Education Association, he led a difficult five-day school strike in 2000 in the Bay Area. A divisive superintendent had dragged contract negotiations on for two years.
“The superintendent later left and never came back,” says Sternberger, a speech therapist who is now a member of the CTA Board of Directors. “It wasn’t just a fight for better salaries, it was also a strike about class sizes and student issues. Teachers in other districts would not have the protections they have now if others hadn’t been willing to go out on a picket line.”
Founded in 1863 during the Civil War as the California Educational Society, CTA won its first major legislative victory in 1866 with a law providing free public schools to California children. A year later, public funding was secured for schools that educated nonwhite students. More early victories established bans on using public school funding for sectarian religious purposes (1878-79); free textbooks for all students in grades 1-8 (1911); the first teacher tenure and due process law (1912); and a statewide pension, the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (1913).
CTA led efforts to outlaw child labor in the state and enact other protections for children (1915), and to strengthen the teacher due process law (1921). In the 1940s, the union was the only major organization in California to protest against the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
While the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 made collective bargaining a lawful, protected activity in the private sector, it did not include public workers or teachers. Wisconsin passed the nation’s first public employee bargaining law (1959), and several large, urban affiliates of NEA or the American Federation of Teachers started winning bargaining rights (New York in 1961, Denver in 1962, Chicago in 1966).
After a decade of school strikes and teacher organizing, California K-14 educators at last won the right to bargain collectively in 1975 when the CTA-sponsored Educational Employment Relations Act, also known as the Rodda Act, was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown. The pent-up frustrations led to a rare and historic burst of union certification work — within 18 months, 600 of 1,000 CTA/NEA locals statewide secured bargaining rights in their school districts.
A turning point in CTA’s history came in 1988. That was the year teachers fought to pass Proposition 98, the landmark state law guaranteeing about 40 percent of the state’s general fund for schools and community colleges. Teachers were tired of the Legislature’s raiding school funding during every economic downtown, recalls Ed Foglia, who was CTA president during the fight for Prop. 98.
“We became a strong political organizing union,” says Foglia, now president of CTA/NEA-Retired. “The passage of Prop. 98 and all that went into that fight made CTA a stronger union and one of the strongest unions in the nation.”
At the ballot box, CTA members are a force.
Since 1978, CTA has opposed 23 state propositions; 15 were defeated. CTA won the passage of 20 of the 31 propositions it has supported since 1978. Two deceptive school voucher measures were killed (in 1993 and 2000), and three statewide school bonds were passed (in 1998, 2004 and 2006), providing nearly $35 billion for school renovations.
Making organizing history, thousands of CTA members across the state joined forces with nurses, firefighters and police union members in 2005 to overwhelmingly defeat the governor’s three dangerous, antiunion propositions on the special election ballot in November.
California’s teachers remain vigilant. In the CTA “Pink Friday” protests earlier this year, thousands protested the more than 27,000 pink slips issued to educators. Public school teachers this fall are coping with education cuts of nearly $17 billion made over the past two years. They remember what labor leader Walter Reuther once said long ago: “There’s a direct relationship between the ballot box and the bread box, and what the union fights for and wins at the bargaining table can be taken away in the legislative halls.”
That’s why U.S. teachers today are part of the National Labor Coordinating Committee, which represents 16 million union members from 13 labor unions, including the NEA.
“You can’t have a middle class without labor unions in America,” NEA President Dennis Van Roekel said on Sept. 15 when he became the first NEA president to address the national AFL-CIO convention in Pennsylvania. “Let us be the voice of the uninsured, the unorganized, the dispossessed,” he told the delegates. “This is our time.”