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East Bay DSA

June 03, 2019

“The lesson of the last two years is don’t mess with teachers”: Interview with Ismael Armendariz, VP of Oakland teachers’ union

On May 22, teachers from across California rallied in Sacramento and occupied the state capitol, demanding reform of the charter school laws that are wreaking havoc on public schools. Ismael “Ish” Armendariz, 1st vice president of the Oakland Education Association (OEA), participated in the action with other members of his union. Majority’s Nick French spoke with Armendariz about what happened on May 22, what the day of action meant for the struggle to defend public education, and what’s next for teachers and the labor movement.

(Answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.)

Majority: I’d like to hear your perspective on the May 22 action. What was the purpose of that day’s action, and what do you think teachers took away from it?

Ismael Armendariz: I think the May 22 event served two purposes. One is that it was a chance, that we haven’t had in a very long time, for rank-and-file members to actually lead the union and push the local and our statewide union to become more active in statewide fights. I think what came out of this was a lot of rank-and-file members starting to feel empowered; hopefully we take that back to our locals and also continue to build a statewide movement to support and defend public education. So I think May 22 was the beginning of that coalition and the beginning of that rank-and-file push toward a statewide movement. That was very positive.

I think the other part was to begin to think about the way that our larger statewide union functions, and what role we play within that union. The bill, [AB] 1505 [a bill that restricts charter school growth], was a perfect example of our government relations office pushing for reforms that are affecting our locals and then having the rank-and-file push those reforms forward. I think a lot of times we get caught up in the insider political game and we often discount the power of our members and the power of a movement. I’m hoping that this is an example of us pushing real change in Sacramento and not just relying on staff and not just relying on our statewide union to hold the work but having us be in partnership with our government relations office and having us partnership with our counterparts in CTA [California Teachers’ Association] to really push it with the member-backed power. I’m hoping that’s a model we can take forward on school funding, on further charter school reforms, on other things that are affecting our public schools.

Majority: Some of the teachers confronted legislators in their office on May 22. Were you a part of that?

IA: I think one of the lessons we’re learning this year and last year is that you don’t mess with teachers. We’re at a point right now where we’re really frustrated, and I think our message to any politician out there is: If you want our support, you have to support the issues that matter most deeply to us. I think, for some of those people who were on the fence, going to their office made it very clear that by either voting “no,” or not voting at all, you are taking a position against teachers and against students, and there will be consequences to that. So I think going to their offices put them on notice that it’s not a free ride anymore — if you want us to back you and support you politically, then you have to follow through on your promises. Going to their offices and holding them accountable to that is something that we should be doing, reminding them that they work for us and that they work for the people.

Majority: Were there any moments on that day that you would single out as highlights, or the most exciting?

IA: I think for somebody like myself who works in Oakland, who has been fighting for charter reform for the past seven years of my teaching career, because I’ve seen the devastation,  seeing AB 1505 pass — where it’s been killed multiple times before — it was powerful seeing it pass and knowing that we were a part of making it pass. Because we had thousands of teachers out there: We were marching, we were in their offices when we had to be, we were in the rotunda. I was in the gallery at one point watching them vote and you could hear thousands of teachers outside through the walls. Knowing that all those pressure points helped push pass this piece of legislation was one of the most exciting things, and seeing rank-and-file teachers take ownership of creating that is also very special. That part of the day was really fought for and pushed for by rank-and-file teachers. I thought that was very beautiful.

Majority: Yes. I was watching it all unfold on Twitter and wishing I was there. It seemed awesome. You said that this day was really the first step in building power towards pressing for even bigger reforms around charter schools and public education moving forward. What do you think are the next steps in this fight?

IA: The very first thing that we have to do is get the Schools and Local Communities Funding Act passed, [which would close an $11 billion corporate property tax loophole]. That’s very low-hanging fruit. It just has to be done. We have to be able to tax corporations, and we have to be able to distinguish a corporation from your regular landowner. We have to be able to tax corporations, and they should not be paying taxes at rates from the 1970s. That’s just not okay anymore. They have to pay their fair share.

We’re looking at what comes next year. How do we bring all of this energy together so that we can push for a platform? What does it look like for LA and Sacramento and Oakland and San Francisco and some of these larger unions to really push and continue to push, so that we can build a statewide movement? That’s what we’re struggling with right now: what comes next? So I think there’s going to be a lot of opportunities to provide input on that. There’s a lot of energy, and it’s exciting, and I think this is a moment right now for us to make some big changes.

Majority: Yeah, it’s definitely very exciting. Do you have final thoughts about the May 22 action or the fight for public education that you’d like to share with our readers?

IA: The lesson of the last two years is: Don’t mess with teachers. I think it’s really important to also recognize that this is about improving education. It’s about saving public education. But it’s also about reviving a militant labor movement. I think that’s what you’re seeing post-Janus with teachers, and with nurses, and some of the other unionized sectors that are left. We’re so under attack that now we’re at the point where we have to rebuild a militant labor union movement. And that doesn’t just include labor or actual unions, but all working-class folks — we need to rebuild a militant labor movement. And that’s the part that’s often missing from the rhetoric or the stuff that is written; that’s what May 22 is showing. It’s not just about insider business unionism. It’s about building militancy.