On the GWHS-Led Action Against the EmpowerSF Disaster
By a group of SFMORE members
What We Did
On May 4th, approximately thirty rank-and-file UESF members, primarily from George Washington High School, led a protest action in front of SFUSD’s payroll office. Fed up with egregious reductions on paychecks and benefits from the EmpowerSF pay system and the district’s lack of support, GWHS educators organized their school site to push back.
Upon hearing of the action, the District sent a number of representatives to GWHS to assuage members’ concerns—and to prevent the action these members were organizing—but were unable to appropriately address members’ needs, highlighting the district’s lack of competence and unwillingness to resolve members’ dire financial issues. In a context of rising inflation, debt, and an increasingly stressful work environment for school workers, the under/non-payment of educators and the district’s careless response are unacceptable and outrageous. We congratulate our union comrades who organized this protest and believe they demonstrate how we should respond to instances of injustice in our schools.
Why We Did It
Educators at GWHS organized after an unproductive meeting with union leadership. At the meeting, Washington teachers shared their stories of exploitation by SFUSD but felt unheard. Union members at GWHS were then told the union leadership sympathized with the various issues of pay and benefits facing membership but had no plans in motion to resolve them or future plans to resolve them apart from contract bargaining in July. The lawsuit against SFUSD was dropped by the union leadership for dubious reasons which were not fully explained to questioning members in the meeting. This blatant disrespect shown to the union members at GWHS by leadership left the site members no choice but to organize themselves as rank and file outside of the leadership’s perview.
How We Did It
In a series of lunch and after-school meetings over two weeks, members of GWHS collaborated first to make a statement of demands— and then spread information of these demands and the upcoming action via the PTSA and a non-district email contact tree. This collective process helped to galvanize potentially reluctant members to participate in this action. May 4th was chosen as a date to replicate the prior “walk in'' for PPE and to strategically coincide with the planned budget meetings for the Board of Education (moved after the action by the BOE to May 11) in order to pressure the BOE to listen to worker demands more seriously after exposure from the media.
Acknowledging the backlash from using the “walk in/sick out” strategy, GWHS organizers also decided to take personal days instead of sick days and to allow those participating to call out for subs in advance. This would limit the impacts to students, legally cover the participants, and encourage a larger group, including less radical teachers, to participate. Additionally, site administrators were notified several days prior to the action in order to maintain transparency surrounding the purpose and scope of our work.
Roles for each individual involved in the planning process were clearly defined in each meeting’s agenda and “to do” lists were generated of all the necessary tasks which would need to be completed: contacting the media, flyering, notifying administrators, creating a google form to collect members’ stories around EmpowerSF, making a sign in sheet, etc. When the action began, the roles and responsibilities established during these preparatory meetings allowed for better organization, consistent messaging, and a more cohesive front of educators against the exploitation of SFUSD.
How We Move Forward
For those of us fighting to build a militant and democratic labor movement, actions like these are critical. While many members’ payroll issues at GWHS continue, the process of organizing and fighting back—thereby forcing the district to send agents and causing district officials, including Vincent Matthews, to flee and avoid accountability—helps to build confidence in our collective ability to demand changes.
With the support of our elected union officials, this action could have been expanded across our district, thus creating a far more powerful, visible, and unified movement with a greater chance of success. Prior to the event, GWHS organizers met with UESF leaders to seek support for their action. UESF leaders promised tangible support in the form of printing signs, providing media contacts, among other forms of support, but they never followed through. Thus far, our leadership continues to negotiate around Deferred Net Payments (DNP) with SFUSD and encourages members to speak out at school board meetings. However, we find such actions to be less productive than labor actions organized by our rank and file members, such as the one led by GWHS UESF educators, that both increase our combined courage to resist and offer the most effective method to win our demands. It is this more aggressive bottom-up method of mass organizing we believe our union leadership should prioritize and invest in. Our power lies in removing our labor and disrupting the status quo—as educators in Sacramento and Minneapolis can attest from their recent strike actions—as opposed to the table of negotiations or the courts, in which we are relatively weak without the organized strength of an active membership.
Without a clear end in sight to this payroll problem as well as an upcoming contract fight, it is more important than ever that our school sites organize themselves to act in the spirit of the GWHS-led action. The fight around EmpowerSF—a private corporation receiving our district’s public funds—is part of a larger struggle against a neoliberal assault on public education. The ongoing layoffs, cuts to programs, and demonization of educator unions is promoted by our local capitalist class and their media mouthpieces. We believe in a fighting, active union that can unite with our working-class communities for robust, justice-oriented public schools.