Teachers Union Shows Its Strength in Budget Battle : Lobby: The CTA has emerged as a potent interest group. Some say its ties to Democrats could weaken it.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As the Legislature wrestled with the state's $14.3-billion budget deficit through a sweltering weekend earlier this month, some of the key moves were not made by legislators but by officials of the 200,000-member California Teachers Assn.

CTA lobbyists, carrying proposals and counterproposals, scurried between the Assembly and Senate chambers and union headquarters, in a former Mexican restaurant two blocks away. They met with individual legislators, groups of lawmakers and representatives of other education groups to discuss nuances of the complex budget negotiations.

In the end, they won at least a partial victory when Gov. Pete Wilson dropped his high-profile campaign to suspend Proposition 98, the 1988 voter-approved initiative that guarantees funding for public schools and community colleges. Instead of cutting schools by $2.1 billion as he proposed in his budget, Wilson ended up increasing school spending by $822 million.

Faced with the worst budget crisis in state history, CTA and its allies thus far have been able to keep the damage to schools and community colleges to a minimum. Along the way, the union has earned itself a reputation as one of the Capitol's most powerful lobbies.

"You can't cut this kind of a deal without CTA," a state Department of Education official said as he watched the weekend's feverish activity.

The group has dueled with governors and legislative leaders, fought for higher school spending and pushed California teacher salaries up to among the highest in the nation. By pouring big money and volunteers into political campaigns, union officials have been able to elect candidates, mostly Democrats, who are sympathetic to their goals.

They direct barrages of mail, phone calls and sometimes squads of pickets at their opponents. During the first three months of this year alone--as Wilson battled to suspend school funding guarantees--the CTA spent $1.5 million on lobbying, more than any other group, Secretary of State March Fong Eu reported.

But some critics say the union's close ties to the Democratic Party threaten to reduce its effectiveness in a state where Republican Party registration is increasing and where the GOP has held the governor's office for 17 of the last 25 years.

For now, however, the CTA remains one of the most influential lobbying groups in Sacramento, rivaling the persuasive powers of the California Manufacturers Assn., doctors, trial lawyers, the insurance industry and, in recent years, prison guards.

"The money and the bodies make a powerful one-two punch," said Scott Plotkin, president-elect of the California School Boards Assn.

CTA members pay $10 a year (out of $330 annual dues) for political action, creating a fund of about $2 million a year for contributions to candidates and other political expenditures. Members also contribute $12 apiece annually to a media fund, to pay for advertising that sometimes carries a political message.

But "it's the people, more than the dollars, that make CTA powerful," said Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar). Volunteers walk precincts, operate phone banks and mail campaign literature. "A lot of groups can provide money but very few can turn out campaign workers like the teachers can."

Many politicians believe teachers make believable advocates.

Assemblyman Charles W. Quackenbush (R-Saratoga) observed, "If the teachers think something is a good idea, people will generally go for it . . . they represent the part of education people like."

CTA's biggest political victory came in 1988, when California voters approved Proposition 98, guaranteeing public schools and community colleges at least 40% of the state's general fund revenues. The teachers' union assessed its members $7 million to pay for the campaign, which was narrowly successful.

"Without CTA, 98 never would have happened," said state Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig.

Two years later, the organization won a more controversial victory with the passage of Proposition 111, a transportation financing measure that also allowed the state, in sour economic times like the present, to give public schools less money than was guaranteed by Proposition 98.

Many CTA members, especially those in large urban school districts like Los Angeles, thought Proposition 111 was a bad idea. But CTA leaders backed it because they did not think it was politically possible for education to retain 40% or more of state revenues while health, welfare and other social services were being cut drastically.

In such an environment, it was feared, Proposition 98 might be reversed by another vote of the people.

Not all of CTA's energies, nor all of its $56-million annual budget, are expended on politics.

The union helps local chapters with collective bargaining by running summer institutes and dispatching special advisers to school districts where negotiations have gotten sticky. CTA also retains a group of lawyers around the state to defend its members in school personnel cases.

At CTA headquarters in Burlingame, south of San Francisco, some staffers work on instructional innovations, though CTA's reputation in that area is somewhat shaky.

Still, CTA is best known for its political muscle.

A generation ago, "we were a professional organization that looked down on strikes and unions," said George Neill, retired CTA press officer. Then came "the revolution of the late 1960s," Neill said, after which "negotiations and collective bargaining became a big thing and we turned to the confrontational approach, instead of working together in a collaborative way."

Many teachers were more comfortable with the earlier, less combative approach, but it is hard to argue with CTA's success.

California's average teacher salary of $36,418 was sixth-highest in the nation in 1989-90, the National Education Assn. reported. Health care and other benefits also are generally good around the state.

However, higher salaries and better benefits sometimes have come at the expense of larger class size and other working conditions. California's classes were the second-largest in the country in 1989-90.

Nor have the union's efforts been able to lift California education spending to the level of several other large, industrialized states. The NEA's 1989-90 figures show that California spending per student was only $4,598, compared with $6,170 in Massachusetts, $8,094 in New York and $8,439 in New Jersey.

Having political clout in the state capital has always been useful to the teachers' union. But it became vital after the 1978 passage of Proposition 13, which cut property taxes and transferred control of most school funding from local school districts to the state.

"Effectively, the power moved to Sacramento," said CTA Executive Director Ralph Flynn, who has led the organization for 17 years. "CTA, as a statewide organization, found itself in a power position overnight."

Flynn strengthened the Sacramento lobbying force and hired Alice Huffman to run it, as CTA's director of governmental relations. Huffman's close ties to Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco), formed through black political organizations, have helped to build the teachers' union into a political powerhouse.

"Willie pushes their bills and blocks those they don't want," Scott Plotkin said.

United Teachers-Los Angeles, the CTA's largest and most militant unit, has the ear of Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles), although the relationship does not appear to be as close as that between CTA and Brown.

CTA political contributions are among the largest in the state. Last year, the teachers' union gave money to 83 people running for the state Senate and the Assembly, only four of whom were Republicans, the Fair Political Practices Commission reported. In 1988, there were only nine Republicans among 75 legislative candidates who received CTA money, in 1986 only six Republicans out of 84. In 1990, the CTA also contributed more than $600,000 to defeat Republican-backed reapportionment initiatives.

In recent years, CTA has been instrumental in the victories of several Democratic state senators and Assembly members.

Sometimes the group hedges its bets. Dianne Feinstein, the unsuccessful Democratic candidate for governor last year, received $125,000 from CTA. When Feinstein lost to Wilson, the teachers' union contributed $10,000 to a Wilson post-election fund-raising event.

Republican Thomas W. Hayes, who was defeated by Kathleen Brown for state treasurer, was given $25,000, the most the teachers' group ever has contributed to a Republican. Brown received $5,500.

About 25% of CTA political contributions go to local school board candidates--123 of them last year. Four of the seven members of the Los Angeles school board have received financial and other support from United Teachers-Los Angeles. However, Sterling Delone recently lost his bid for a board seat despite receiving more than $130,000 from UTLA.

CTA fought with former Gov. George Deukmejian over school financing through most of his two terms--a pattern that Wilson attempted to break by meeting with the unionists and other education groups during his transition to office.

"He told us, 'I'm negotiable, I want to talk, I hope this is just the first of many meetings,' " said Kevin Gordon, director of governmental relations for the California School Boards Assn. "But that was the last one we had."

When Wilson proposed suspending Proposition 98 as part of next year's budget settlement and followed that by proposing temporary suspension of collective bargaining in the financially ravaged Richmond school district, CTA fired back with a television commercial that showed a little girl imploring the governor, "Please don't suspend 98--it's our future."

Wilson called the commercial repugnant and labeled CTA leaders union bosses.

Just when it seemed CTA's relations with the new governor would be every bit as sour as they were with his predecessor, the battlefield fell quiet.

CTA's Huffman and political consultant Bobbie Metzger, representing a coalition of education groups, met with the late Otto Bos, Wilson's director of communications, and a truce was arranged because, as Honig said later, "they decided this kind of public fight wasn't helpful."

Although the vitriolic public exchanges ceased, CTA worked hard to make sure Wilson could not muster the two-thirds vote needed in both houses to suspend Proposition 98. The strategy paid off when the deal to preserve the initiative received swift, bipartisan approval in both houses, even while Democrats and Republicans continued to haggle over nearly every other provision of the governor's budget. It is awaiting Wilson's signature.

Still, union officials remain deeply suspicious that Wilson wants to get rid of the school funding guarantee because it limits his flexibility in handling the state's finances. And, from time to time, the armistice has been broken.

"They're grooming this golden boy for the presidency," outgoing President Ed Foglia told a recent CTA meeting in Los Angeles. "We can't afford him for the presidency and we can't afford him to be governor. Wilson must be a one-term governor!"

Even CTA allies are not immune to pressure from the union.

Last year, the organization did not endorse Honig, with whom CTA worked hand in glove to pass Proposition 98. The union made that decision because the superintendent advocated binding arbitration in school district labor disputes, a position it strongly opposed. Honig won a third term anyway, but his margin of victory was reduced sharply.

CTA members have even picketed the offices of Assemblyman Katz and former Democratic state Sen. John Garamendi, who have voted with the union most of the time but were seen to be weakening in their support for Proposition 98.

What has playing all this political hardball gained for the teachers' union?

Better salaries and benefits. General acceptance as a major player in the state's educational-fiscal decisions. And, most important, Executive Director Flynn said, "We've been able to move education to the top of the social service agenda. It was slipping off the state's agenda and we've been able to bring it back to the top."

Of course, other social services moved down on the agenda as education moved up. Groups associated with these programs, including health and welfare, are not thrilled by this achievement.

Some Sacramento observers see a downside to CTA's political success, especially the close identification with the Democratic Party.

"I think they have hurt themselves," state Sen. Marion Bergeson (R-Newport Beach) said. "Many of us who are interested in education feel CTA is not very interested in us."

The teachers' organization endorsed Republican state Sen. Becky Morgan of Los Altos Hills in her successful 1988 race but "they rarely contact me," Morgan said, even though she is the only Republican on the important Senate education budget subcommittee. "I was supposed to have a meeting and a dinner with Alice Huffman and she canceled them both. I don't know what's going on."

"Sometimes it seems that Alice Huffman and other CTA people operate as staff for the Speaker and for Mr. Roberti," said state Sen. Bill Leonard (R-Big Bear).

Even some Democrats agree.

"The perception by Republicans that CTA is a Democratic organization makes it harder to form bipartisan coalitions on education issues," said state Sen. Gary K. Hart (D-Santa Barbara), chairman of the Senate Education Committee.

Del Weber, who takes over as CTA president later this month, favors a more bipartisan approach. He noted, in an interview, that 35% of CTA's members are registered Republicans while 54% are Democrats. Weber, a registered Republican, said, "It's not in our interest to be perceived as a monolithic organization, interested only in Democrats."

Some believe that the California Teachers Assn. has reached the peak of its political power, that the unhappiness of big-city members and other problems soon will begin to dilute the union's influence in Sacramento and around the state.

Besides softening the organization's Democrats-only image, Weber must find a way to forge unity among CTA's many disparate elements. In particular, he must try to silence the angry rumblings that are coming from United Teachers-Los Angeles and from other large urban CTA chapters.

The big-city unionists think CTA leaders have made a series of blunders in recent years that have undermined financial support for schools.

These critics have formed something called the "unusual coalition" to make the case in Sacramento that more money for schools is more important than preserving Proposition 98.

"Our members wonder: OK, we saved 98 but we got laid off. What did we accomplish?" said Helen Bernstein, president of United Teachers-Los Angeles, some of whose 30,000 members may lose their jobs because of the Los Angeles schools' massive budget deficit. Keeping Proposition 98 while many school districts are forced to make drastic cuts amounts to "form without substance," said Hugh Boyle, president of the 4,500-member San Diego Teachers Assn.

But CTA leaders argue that 1991-92 will be a damage-control year in which "there will be some pain" but that the state's teachers will be much better off in the future if Proposition 98 is retained.

"Suspending 98 will not result in more money for urban districts next year and will be devastating in the long run," Weber said.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
68°