Labor - And A Whole Lot More

A Teachers' Teacher
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Politicians, parents, and just about everyone else, it sometimes seems, are forever complaining about the alleged poor quality of American schools. But their proposed remedies all too rarely include giving an effective voice and decent compensation to the teachers who are the heart and the soul of the education system.

Jim Ballard knew better. He was an extraordinary labor leader whose efforts in behalf of San Francisco's teachers, their profession and their community were among the most important ever undertaken anywhere.

Ballard, president for 17 years of the American Federation of Teachers local in San Francisco, led his members' campaign to win the essential right of collective bargaining that teachers all across the country were finally demanding, none more effectively than those in San Francisco. It was the key to raising their status and a key as well to raising the quality of education.

Teachers, students and communities throughout California benefited from Ballard's leadership. For the success of the drive for bargaining rights in San Francisco was a primary impetus for the passage in 1975 of the law that granted that right to all of the state's teachers.

The situation was much different in 1967, when Ballard, a high school mathematics teacher and former auto workers union organizer and civil rights activist in Chicago, was elected union president.

Teachers had scant choice but to take whatever school administrators offered them in pay and working conditions. They had little say in the operations of their schools and no effective way to seek redress of their grievances.

"Teachers were fearful," Ballard once recalled. "They had a low self-image. Principals were autocrats and, certainly, no one ever questioned the superintendent of schools -- or the school board."

Ballard, however, repeatedly and often heatedly challenged school authorities on behalf of his members. He was a fixture at school board meetings, laying out in careful detail the needs and grievances of teachers and denouncing the administrators and others who opposed their union.

He made certain the public was informed of the teachers' positions by frequently holding invariably well-attended news conferences.

Ballard was a passionate advocate. "The school administrative process stinks because the teachers are ignored," he declared shortly after assuming union office. "You have to remember that it's very hard for a large number of teachers ... to maintain a sense of dedication when they feel removed from the arbitrary decisions that are made by the school board."

The teachers raised their status under Ballard largely through a series of strikes and other militant actions.

They struck for a single day in 1968 to win a strong voice in school operations and in setting their working conditions. Teachers took to the picket lines three years later to wage a 17-day strike over attempts to deny them that voice and void agreements they had won previously.

The teachers won a major victory. Among other matters, the school district agreed to continue reducing class sizes, to hire more minority teachers and more and better-paid para-professional teacher aides, to give teachers more paid lesson preparation time and to submit unresolved grievances to an outside arbitrator for decision.

Two years later, in 1974, teachers struck for three weeks to win pay and benefit increases for all the groups the union long had been trying to pull together into a tight coalition -- regular teachers, substitutes, teachers in childrens' centers, and the paraprofessionals who had close ties to the minority community.

The strike showed that teachers now had the will, and the power, to exert strong influence when they believed they were not being given enough of a voice in the basic decisions about what happened in their classrooms.

Their greatest test came in 1979 after passage of State Proposition 13, which drastically cut back the property taxes on which schools relied. In response, the superintendent of schools moved to lay off fully one-fourth of San Francisco's teachers. He later agreed to keep them on, but only as temporary employees who had no rights and could be fired at any time for any reason.

The union had little choice. It struck once again, this time for six weeks, finally winning back permanent jobs for 80 percent of the teachers whose rights the superintendent had threatened.

Ballard stayed on as union president for five more years before returning to teaching in 1984. He died at age 75 in 1999.

His was an extremely rare talent, the ability "to persuade and inspire people to act on their own behalf," noted Ballard's wife, Marcy Dunne Ballard.

"He was a teacher in the real sense of the word and my leader when I was beginning to understand that if I was going to be a professional I had to stand up for my rights and my profession," said teacher Luisa Ezquerro. "That's what I learned from Jim."

Copyright Dick Meister

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