SACRAMENTO — Last year, as Gov. Jerry Brown hammered out final details of the state budget, he huddled around a conference table with three of the most powerful people in state government: the Assembly speaker, the Senate leader — and Joe Nuñez, chief lobbyist for the California Teachers Assn.
California was on the edge of fiscal crisis. Negotiations had come down to one sticking point: Brown and the legislators would balance the books by assuming that billions of dollars in extra revenue would materialize, then cut deeply from schools if it didn't.
Nuñez said no.
Opposition from the powerful union, which had just staged a week of public protests against budget cuts, could mean a costly legal challenge. So the group took a break, and the officials retired to another room to hash out something acceptable to CTA while Nuñez awaited their return.
It may seem unorthodox for an unelected citizen to sit with Sacramento's elite as they pick winners and losers in the annual spending sweepstakes. But few major financial decisions in California are made without Nuñez, who represents what is arguably the most potent force in state politics.
The union views itself as "the co-equal fourth branch of government," said Oakland Democrat Don Perata, a former teacher who crossed swords with the group when he was state Senate leader.
Backed by an army of 325,000 teachers and a war chest as sizable as those of the major political parties, CTA can make or break all sorts of deals. It holds sway over Democrats, labor's traditional ally, and Republicans alike.
Jim Brulte, a former leader of the state Senate's GOP caucus, recalled once attending a CTA reception with a Republican colleague who told the union's leaders that he had come to "check with the owners."
CTA is one of the biggest political spenders in California. It outpaced all other special interests, including corporate players such as telecommunications giant AT&T; and the Chevron oil company, from 2000 through 2009, according to a state study. In that decade, the labor group shelled out more than $211 million in political contributions and lobbying expenses — roughly twice that of the next largest spender, the Service Employees International Union.
Since then it has spent nearly $40 million more, including $4.7 million to help Brown become governor, according to the union's filings with the secretary of state.
And CTA's influence, unlike that of other interests, is written directly into California's Constitution. More than two decades ago, the group drafted an initiative to guarantee public schools at least 40% of the general fund and waged a successful multimillion-dollar campaign for it. As author and defender of that law, the union established a firm grip on the largest chunk of the budget.
CTA has since used its institutionalized clout, deep pockets and mass membership largely to protect the status quo. The union's positions often align with those of the smaller California Federation of Teachers, but its resources are unmatched. CTA has ferociously guarded a set of hard-won tenure rules and seniority protections, repeatedly beating back attempts by education groups to overturn those measures, increase teacher accountability and introduce private-school vouchers.
It has thwarted the agendas of governors and even President Obama, whose administration has tried and failed to enlist California in its effort to make sweeping changes in the country's education system.
At odds with former Gov. Gray Davis over education policy in 2003, CTA's lobbyist casually suggested a recall election to Republican operative Sal Russo, a conversation that helped fuel the first ouster of a California governor — the first Democrat to hold the post in 16 years — and the election of Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger.
When the actor-turned-governor vowed to break CTA's stranglehold on the Legislature, the union derailed his plans. His political scalp hangs in the fifth-floor conference room of the union's Sacramento headquarters: a framed parody of Schwarzenegger as "True Liar" (a play on one of his movie titles) complete with a Pinocchio nose.
Union officials say CTA's power protects school funding and defends education against the competing agendas of Sacramento's other moneyed interests.
Dean Vogel, CTA's president, put it this way: "When you've got a union of professional educators on one side and you've finally got people in key positions in the state government on the other, and you're all speaking with one voice … I think that's pretty good for the kids of California."
Among CTA's list of accomplishments, its officials say, are reducing class sizes and helping pass bond measures to fund school renovations.
But advocacy groups that focus on teacher quality, school improvements and parent empowerment say the union's might in Sacramento blocks any serious change in an education system that is failing California's students. After years of battling unsuccessfully to pass accountability measures in the Legislature, those groups have turned to the courts.
In lawsuits against the state and the Los Angeles Unified School District, they allege that a number of union-backed laws "prevent school administrators from prioritizing or even considering the interests of their students" and perpetuate gross inequalities in California's education system.
California teachers have one of the shortest probationary periods in the country — lifetime tenure after two years in the classroom. If they are subsequently disciplined, an arduous dismissal process begins that can require years of paperwork and hearings before a teacher can be fired.
Dismissals are often overturned by an appeals panel made up of a judge and two educators. Layoffs due to budget cuts are based on seniority, without regard for job performance.
"We are challenging a system that was fashioned by special interests and has burdened our schools with an inflexible environment for hiring and retaining the best teachers," said Dave Welch, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and founder of Students Matter, the main backer of one lawsuit.
CTA says such efforts are misguided. The union argues that the real problem is California's perpetual financial crisis and under-funding of public schools. At a quarterly meeting of the union last year, Vogel called on teachers to back the governor's plan to raise taxes, boasting of CTA's muscle.
"You know why people are so afraid of us? We are in every single community in this state," he told the crowd. "You cannot walk into a church in California without a CTA member being in that congregation. You can't sit at a soccer game without sitting near a CTA member. Try to be in a Safeway somewhere without a CTA member there."
The union didn't always have such clout. Founded in 1863, CTA long saw itself as a professional organization, separate from the politicized ranks of organized labor, said Alice Huffman, a former director of governmental relations for the group. It wasn't until the 1980s that CTA became a force in Sacramento.
The group began to dole out large sums of money for lawmakers' campaigns, marshaled teachers around their collective bargaining rights and ultimately fashioned itself into the main cash machine for California's Democratic Party.
It solidified its role in the Capitol in 1988 with the passage of Proposition 98, the education funding guarantee. Nearly 24 years later, CTA is deferred to as the complex law's final arbiter.
Some legislators resent CTA's power, particularly on budget issues, where it is most keenly felt. Almost none will say so publicly, citing fear of retribution.
When Perata, the former state Senate leader, wanted to tinker with education funding some years ago, CTA deluged his constituents with critical mail and put up billboards in his district that read SHAME ON YOU.
In the Assembly, where most legislators start their Sacramento careers, a onetime CTA lobbyist has long directed policy as the speaker's top education adviser. The union's allies are appointed to key committee posts in both houses.
Former Assemblyman Juan Arambula said the union is the Legislature's guiding force in the era of term limits. "CTA is going to be around regardless" of who leads in the Capitol, he said.
A few years ago, Arambula wanted to give some districts more authority to improve low-performing schools. Opponents, including CTA, did not want to give locals that flexibility.
A CTA lobbyist came to his office and told him to drop the measure, said Arambula, an independent from Fresno who left the Democratic Party over conflicts with labor unions. He refused, but "I could not dynamite that bill loose" from a key committee, he said, and it died there.
The committee's chairman was Tom Torlakson, now the state schools superintendent. Torlakson won the statewide office in 2010 with major backing from CTA, which spent more than $3.3 million on his behalf in a close three-way race.
Seven weeks ago, state Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima) took on the union in what his supporters, including the Los Angeles Unified School District and the California School Boards Assn., viewed as a reasonable response to the sexual abuse scandal at Miramonte Elementary School in Los Angeles. He proposed speeding the dismissal process for teachers who engaged in "serious or egregious unprofessional conduct": offenses involving sex, drugs or violence.
Teachers and union lobbyists who opposed the lawmaker packed a Capitol hearing room as he testified before the Assembly Education Committee. They had already paid visits to most of the committee's 11 members, posted photos of some of those meetings and thanked the lawmakers on Twitter.
Padilla said his bill was prompted by the case of former Miramonte teacher Mark Berndt, who was charged with 23 counts of lewd acts on children. The legislation, he said, would affect only "the very, very few who abuse the trust we've given them."
"This bill is not about dismissing a teacher if the lesson plan is not ready or they've shown up tardy too many times," Padilla testified.
CTA objected that the bill would have given school boards, rather than an administrative judge and two educators, final authority over dismissals. Dozens of teachers from across the state lined up at the microphone to defend the existing procedure, each holding a declaration asking the state to investigate school administrators for their roles in the Miramonte scandal.
"If you take teacher dismissal and you make it a political process, you will be undermining the basic tenets of the system we've had for 40 years and that has worked for 40 years," said Warren Fletcher, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, CTA's largest affiliate.
The bill failed.
Perhaps no one felt CTA's power more than Schwarzenegger. In 2005, he asked voters to decide on a batch of ballot measures that struck at the heart of the union's power.
He wanted the authority to bypass Proposition 98. He proposed restricting unions' participation in politics. And he asked that teachers be required to work longer before winning tenure.
The union responded aggressively, approving a dues hike for an instant multimillion-dollar cash infusion. It spent nearly $60 million on a punishing "No" campaign. On election day, all of Schwarzenegger's proposals tanked.
During 2009 budget talks, Schwarzenegger pushed again for flexibility in education funding, which could have meant teacher layoffs. As Schwarzenegger and legislative leaders argued in the governor's conference room, Susan Kennedy, his chief of staff, received an email on her BlackBerry.
It was from Nuñez, the CTA lobbyist, Kennedy recalled.
"Don't go there," it read.
Democrats in the room, Kennedy fumed, were emailing Nuñez real-time updates on the budget talks.
"It was almost as if CTA had a seat at the table," said Kennedy, herself a Democrat.
Nuñez said he didn't remember sending the email, but "if I did, good for me."
Vogel, the CTA president, said deference to his organization was appropriate.
"If I was doing their work," he said, "I'd certainly be interested in where we are and what we think."
Later that year, the Obama administration offered cash-strapped states billions of dollars in competitive grants to increase teacher accountability. Schwarzenegger asked lawmakers to pass several measures that could help the state get up to $700 million.
His list contained items the union had fought for years: merit pay for teachers, permission for students to change campuses, a requirement that student test scores be part of teachers' evaluations.
Schwarzenegger found an ally in state Sen. Gloria Romero, a Democrat from East Los Angeles who chaired the Senate Education Committee. But few lawmakers came aboard.
"They didn't want to know what the bills said," Romero recalled. "The only question I was asked was, 'Where is CTA on this?'"
CTA was opposed. Romero said her Democratic colleagues accused her of jeopardizing their careers by antagonizing the group.
In the end, parts of the package passed. But CTA had the final word.
The union urged its local affiliates not to support California's application for the federal funds. Washington dinged the state for the lack of union buy-in, among other factors, and rejected its request.
Even before CTA helped Jerry Brown win election, he was sympathetic to many of its causes, such as limiting standardized testing and reducing government's role in schools. On his first full day in office, he sacked the majority of the state Board of Education.
He replaced several proponents of charter schools, parent power and teacher accountability with people friendlier to the union, including one of its lobbyists, Patricia Rucker. A few days later, Brown proposed a budget that eliminated money for a state database of such information as which courses a teacher had taught and what credentials he or she had, a system CTA opposed.
Months later, Brown turned to CTA for help closing California's budget deficit as he and legislative leaders came within days of their legal deadline to do so. They summoned Nuñez, the CTA lobbyist, to the governor's U-shaped suite and made their pitch to plug the gap with their rosy revenue forecasts. School funds would be cut if the money didn't appear.
That's when Nuñez balked. If the projections proved wrong (as they ultimately did), schools could be forced to fire teachers en masse.
Brown and the other leaders left the room. They returned with the outlines of a compromise scribbled on cardboard. The four hashed out details into the evening. A few days later, the Legislature passed a budget allowing education cuts if revenue lagged.
But CTA could still claim victory. Nuñez had secured a guarantee few could have imagined in such lean times:
For the next year, no school — no matter how financially strapped — could lay off any of its teachers.