Sunday, March 28, 2010

Restoring the Promise

Editor's Note: I'm a Vice-President for the AFT local that produced the following video and I am doing this for the students in the photo below, as well as the multitudes not shown.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Why I'm Marching

Gavin Riley is a retired teacher of 37 years. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Barbra.

Why I March:
Over the last 20 years we have a seen a vast decrease not only in the amount of funding but in the state’s commitment to education. When I went to school in the 1950s and 1960s, the state dedicated itself to education and infrastructure. Our parents fought World War II when they were younger, and they sacrificed to get us through school. Our school system was the envy of the country.

Today we have an every-man-for-himself mentality. Legislators are no longer committing to the things that made this state great. We are now talking about reducing the number of school days. That is crazy.

With the path we’re on, the only thing we’re going to leave our children is a mountain of debt. If we don’t educate them, I don’t know how they’re going to get out of the mess we left them.

I am marching because it might be the only way we can restore California’s commitment to education.

Friday, March 26, 2010

We must build a culture of community autonomy and self-reliance

Editor's Note: Jenn Laskin is a Reading Specialist and teacher at Renaissance Continuation High School in Watsonville. She has been a teacher for 11 years. After the article below Jenn talks about why she's marching.

As we move up the Central Valley I see and speak with many people. Different skins colors and cultures line our path.

So many people driving through only see the nice homes and the people who live in them. We overlook the trailer compounds along the road, sandwiched between a prison on the left and a cows on the right standing up to their knees in mud and manure. The bulls stand guard along the highway with huge horns.

There is an individualistic nature in poor white people I see, locked in their trailers and shanty houses. People think it is immigrants who are poor and most affected by the budget cuts; I think the poverty in California is more diverse than that.

I met a farmer who was complaining about his orchard being too expensive to water. He proceeded to refuse our petition because he is a Republican. Does he know that its the Republicans on his local Water Board who are keeping water to smaller farmers economically inaccessible?

We who believe in this march need to keep marching, keep leafleting and spreading the information into the affected areas. Schools are in such awful conditions. Yet our schools are a natural place to bring the community together to educate and activate. We must make our schools positive, empowering places, in spite of the horrible labels they place on our schools and the “performance” of our children.

Friday in Reedly, we marched by a high school garden class planting fruit trees in their garden. Hopefully, they will bring in parents and friends for a harvest and cooking party when the garden produces food. This is a perfect model of using a public institution to develop community autonomy.

Friday I learned that the Governor's proposed budget would eliminate CalWORKs cash assistance for more than 1.4 million low-income children and parents. CalWORKs provides cash assistance to low-income families with children, while helping parents find jobs and overcome barriers to employment. More than three-quarters (77.9 percent) of CalWORKs recipients are children.

The Governor's proposal to cut monthly payments by 15.7 percent would reduce or eliminate cash assistance for more than 1.4 million low-income children and their parents. The Governor is also proposing to eliminate the CalWORKs Program effective October 1, 2010 if the federal government does not provide California with $6.9 billion in new funds to help close the state's budget shortfall.

The counties we currently march through will be some of the hardest hit by the reduction of elimination of CalWORKs. The following are the numbers of people in each county who stand to lost crucial cash aid if CalWORKs is eliminated.

FresnoCounty- 80,000+ people
LA County- 400,000+ people
Merced County- 20,000+ people
Sacramento County- 90,000+ people
San Joaquin County- 42,000+ people

Cutting essential services will drive people to desperation to feed themselves. They need the government subsidies to survive and care for their loved ones, but the real question is…how can we organize beyond this? Why do we have to wait for politicians to facilitate our own survival? We must build a culture of community autonomy and self-reliance. We can start by talking to people, one step at a time.
Jenn Laskin - Why I March:
I am marching because I believe the only hope for education is for us to get out in the streets and educate people about how we fund public education in California. I’d like every single person who sees the march to join us and march on Sacramento to shut down the Capitol until the legislature calls a Constitutional Convention to change the 2/3 majority required to pass a budget!

Budget cuts over the years have made our schools less safe. We’re down to seven nurses in my school district of 19,000 students. The administration is cutting custodians, office staff and counselors too. When you’ve got only one custodian at a school, it becomes an unsafe environment. When you have no counselors, kids cannot learn about college.

We have no more money for materials such as paper, PE equipment and art supplies. Music and arts programs have been cut. Class sizes have gotten larger to save money yet we still have too many highly paid administrators. Our priorities are out of balance. I know one calculus teacher who has 38 students in his class.

Especially in younger grades, large class size makes it a challenge for teachers to provide in depth instruction and offer the individualized lessons students deserve. It is hard to teach the whole child and meet their academic, emotional and social needs.

Our current policies are driving students to prison instead of college. California deserves better than this.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Marcher becomes a casualty of budget cuts

Irene Gonzalez has been a juvenile probation officer in Los Angeles County since 2000. She lives in Baldwin Park with her 18-year-old son.

For all the talk about painful budget cuts, Sacramento's neglect of state highways proved literally painful for core walker Irene Gonzalez.

Irene, a Los Angeles juvenile probation officer and Central Vally émigré who is marching the entire 260 miles from Bakersfield to Sacramento, sprained her ankle Saturday two miles outside of Tulare.

The accident occurred on a severely cracked and pock-marked road along Highway 99 that is surrounded on either side by a wasteland of empty fields contaminated by agricultural runoff.

"I remember that there was a really bad smell along that road,² said Gonzalez, an executive board member of the American Federation of State County & Municipal Employees (AFSCME) local 685. "There was this green, smelly, mossy water coming out of pipes and going right into these fields we were walking next to. Then I took a wrong step on the street, because it's really messed up, and I just kept going and didn't think about it, and I just pushed myself to the limit, but once I stopped, I felt some really sharp pain, and I couldn't go forward. When I took off my shoe, the whole inside of my left foot was swollen."

The March for California's Future is designed to highlight the growing ephemerality of the California dream due to the deterioration of the state's social infrastructure that has left many citizens to fend for themselves at a time of record unemployment and home foreclosures.

Now, it appears that repairs for broken roads and environmental protection can be added to the list of needed improvements.

"It is ironic that I hurt my foot on this literally cracked street while marching to find solutions to the problems we have in California," said Gonzalez. "All the budget cuts have really taken their toll on the people and on the state's infrastructure over the years. That's why we need to restore quality public education and public services, rebuild a government that serves all Californians, and create a fair tax system to fund our state's future. Otherwise, the final casualty will be the California dream."

Gonzalez said she has been resting her ankle and icing it.

"I'm not going to let something like this stop me," she said.

Peter Feng
Irene's injury actually happened on the 15th - she's back on the road.

Irene Gonzalez - Why I March:
I am marching because I am a fighter. I believe in fighting for our rights and our future. We can’t let the legislators walk all over us. We can’t be living from paycheck to paycheck while corporate executives are making the big bucks. If it takes a march to do it, if it takes three or four months, I’m there.

In Los Angeles, we have 2,000 minors who stay in three juvenile detention camps. These are kids who got in trouble with the law whom we’re trying to set on the right path. They go to school, receive counseling and get job training. Many of these kids come from broken homes and have mothers and fathers who were in prison or were drug addicts.

Earlier this year, Sacramento forced us to shut down a fire camp for 63 minors. These kids were learning how to be firefighters and getting real-life job skills. They actually fought fires last year in Santa Clarita, working side-by-side with real fire fighters. A lot of these kids were learning for the first time that there really is an alternative to the streets. People think of them as bad kids but most of them really want to do better. They have just never been given the guidance, motivation and attention needed to succeed.

If we’re cutting resources for these kids, what is to become of them in the future?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A substitute marches for all teachers

Editor's Note: David Lyell is a substitute teacher for the Los Angeles Unified School District. He lives in Playa Del Rey. After this article there is a short bio on David as well as a YouTube video from day 2 of the march.

Posted by David Bacon on Mar 24
REEDLEY, CA (3/20/10) – It’s almost impossible for any teacher to take 48 days out of the school year to march to Sacramento, no matter how high the stakes. So it should be no surprise that the teacher walking to Sacramento representing the thousands of members of United Teachers Los Angeles is a substitute teacher, David Lyell.

L.A. is probably getting more than they expected, though. Lyell is not only eloquently denouncing the budget cuts that are decimating districts around the state, but with equal passion is advocating for respect for one of the most necessary, yet most overlooked groups of educators in the system. As thousands of pink slips go out to teachers around California, everyone is scrambling for work, permanent teachers and subs alike. Lyell advocates for both -- for the jobs of all teachers affected by the slashing of the state education budget, and for the welfare and respect needed by his own colleagues.

“In the last two years, over $18 million has been cut from education,” he charges angrily. “California is 47th in per pupil spending. I just don’t get it. How can we be a civilized society, and just accept that we’re 47th – that this about right for us. It seems criminal. The legislature needs to properly fund education. The two-thirds majority needed to pass a budget has to be changed to a simple majority, so that we can get some adequate funding.”

Lyell describes the difficult life of teachers, even in more normal times. “There’s a perception of teachers that I think is really unfair,” he explains, “where some people think they get to leave at 2:30 or 3 o’clock. In my experience, the teachers I know all get up at 5AM to make lesson plans before school. They’re going to meetings after school, then they’re going to parent conferences, and then at night they’re staying up late grading papers. So they’re really overworked. And underpaid.”

It’s not hard to imagine the impact this tall, lanky man, with his salt and pepper beard, has on students when he substitutes in K-5 classrooms. One of the biggest challenges for any sub is maintaining an orderly learning environment. Everyone knows the stereotype of students running wild in the absence of the firm hand of their regular teacher. For Lyell, though, the stereotype is not only inaccurate – it obscures the important steps needed to help children develop self-control, especially at an age when learning those skills will affect them for the rest of their lives.

“Kids have to understand that we’re there to learn, so we need to respect each others’ differences. Don’t get mad if somebody calls you a name. That sort of thing. It saddens me to see that some kids have such trouble with this because they’re smart, great kids. As a substitute teacher I take pride when even though I’m just there for a day, I’m able to reach a student, and show them, ‘hey, there’s another way.’

“Many times I’ve been in a classroom, and frankly, there are some behavior problems. If there are two kids fighting, I’ll pull them both aside and talk to them about why they’re fighting. I’ll get the to realize that there was just a misunderstanding a miscommunication, that somebody’s feelings got hurt and we just need to be respectful. That happens a lot. There are a lot of kids with behavior problems, who need an opportunity to talk with someone about their feelings. Then they can get back to working – to reading and writing and learning.”

But what happens when a teacher is faced, not with 20 students, but with 30 or more? What happens when budget cuts not only reduce the number of teachers and increase class sizes, but also increase the workload of those teachers who remain?

“I’ve seen schools where teachers have to do more and more with fewer resources,” he says sadly, “and can’t provide children with as much counseling or spend individualized attention with the kids. They’re constantly spending all their time in meetings. They’re working with the children as hard as they can, but they can’t always get to everybody. Because teachers are so overworked, and class sizes are so big, it’s just hard to reach all those kids.

“Some kids just have anger management problems – they don’t know how to keep a cool head, or haven’t learned to agree to disagree, or to express themselves in a positive way without resorting to violence. It’s sad because I want to reach out to them, and you can’t when class sizes are over 30 kids. Especially when students are bigger and when you have more kids with that kind of background, it’s harder to reach them.”

These issues confront regular teachers and substitutes alike. “As a substitute I’m also confronted with large class sizes,” Lyell says. “I’m able to offer children an opportunity for education, but it would be a lot easier to do it if we had smaller class sizes. It just saddens me that last year we had 1800 teachers who were laid off in LAUSD. This year the district issued 3000 pink slips. It’s criminal for our society not to offer children at least the opportunity to receive an education.”

As he’s walked up the San Joaquin Valley, Lyell has had the chance to talk with other teachers on the way, and has found that experiences are very similar. One day the marchers were able to talk with two different meetings of teachers in Reedley, a tiny town among grapevines and peach orchards. “They told us they’d gotten into education because they wanted to make a difference in the lives of children, but that with the budget cuts, they’re not able to do it,” he recalls.

He and his fellow marchers have asked them about the role their own local legislators have played in creating this problem by insisting on state budgets that slash education spending, while refusing to consider any new taxes or sources of revenue. “They talked with us about the fact that their legislators are working against their interests, and that they’re going to be held accountable in the elections,” Lyell remembers. “’If they’re not going to support education,’ they say, ‘we’re going to get them out of there.’ We need to do that by organizing and getting the message out and educating people. That’s what this march is about. I love going into these towns. When we went into Dinuba, people came out of their homes to talk to us. When we told them why we’re out here, they were really excited.”

Lyell is also using the opportunity provided by the march to call for greater respect for his fellow substitute teachers. “We take our jobs very seriously,” he insists. “I teach effectively, and I make sure the kids have fun. I can go into any classroom, K-5, with or without a lesson plan, figure out in a short period of time where the kids are in their learning, and what I need to focus on that day. We get right down to business, and I teach. I try to do it with a sense of humor so it’s not torture for them, but we get it done.”

To change the status of subs, he advocates changing the Ed Code to create a separate credential. “Districts could hold us to a higher standard. We’d be reviewed and critiqued on our performance. And in return, we’d have more professional regard. We maintain a cohesive atmosphere of learning in a regular teacher’s absence, so that when they return they have a stronger place to build from. Yet we’re so often overlooked, and it doesn’t make any sense to me. We should professionalize what we do. Substitute teachers need the same protections as regular classroom teachers.”

It’s hard to imagine that Lyell once considered himself an apathetic person. “I know there’s a lot of apathy out there, and I used to be apathetic myself,” he claims. “But I believe now we can make a difference by organizing and working together. I know it’s going to build because, man, we still have a month out here. This is an amazing opportunity.”

David Lyell - Why I March:
I can think of no other area of life that is as politicized as public education. The vast majority of teachers and students face misunderstanding or worse due to the sensationalized actions of a few, and teachers are continually told what to do by people who do everything humanly possible to avoid actually having to set foot in a classroom. This would be comedic if it weren't so true.

We substitute teachers are often overlooked as well. Yet, we maintain the cohesive atmosphere of learning established by the regular teacher, and contribute to that foundation so he or she has a solid place to stand upon his or her return. Yet we have fewer professional protections than classroom aides. I would like to see the creation of a credentialing program to professionalize our contributions.

Education is the foundation of every successful society. I only wish our elected leaders recognized that 'fixing' education begins with adequately funding it, and we start celebrating educators instead of demonizing them.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

My Feet are Tired, but My Dream for California's Future is Strong

Editor's Note: Anna Graves is a retired ESL teacher and former clinical social worker of 25 years. She resides in Berkley with her husband, Jim Barnard. After her article below I've included a bio on Anna.

It's a 350-mile march from Bakersfield to Sacramento if you stop in the small towns along the Highway 99 corridor. I'm a retired teacher and clinical social worker making that march with other teachers and public service workers to sound an alarm in the heartland of this state that the California dream of opportunity and the good life is fading. It's time to wake up and do something about it. We're in the second week of our 48-day trek, and my feet are showing the wear. But though I'm tired, my spirit is soaring with the warm reception we are receiving in the San Joaquin Valley.

Money for our schools and public services has been slashed, and more draconian cuts are threatened in the immediate future. Public worker layoffs are leading to overcrowded classes and lost course offerings, to cuts in essential services to the frail elderly and disabled and the shattering of safety net services. These cuts affect all of us, and the quality of life and standard of living we have worked so hard for decades to achieve is at risk. That's why I'm dedicating my March and April to march -- for our future.

As we move up the state step by step, we are met by passersby who stop to cheer us on with warm words, water and snacks. Churches honor us in their services. Schools host us for the night. Students have come knocking on our RV door to invite us to a local play production. A town chief of police has paid a friendly visit to show his support.

When I read a banner that said, "March For Those Who Cannot," I felt a tug at my heart. I knew I was doing the right thing. It was written on the banner by in-home care workers in Los Angeles at the rally the day we departed for Bakersfield to begin the march. It may come as a surprise to Californians to know that our state ranks 48th in the nation in the number of state employees per resident, and that our K-12 schools are nearly last in the nation in per pupil spending. So, we don't have a "spending problem," as our governor asserts. We're actually behind almost all the other states in spending for our essential services.

What can we do? Alright, I'll say the forbidden word -- taxes. We need to restore taxes on the highest incomes and on large corporations that for years have enjoyed tax cuts. We regular taxpayers have been hoodwinked into carrying more than our share.

For example:

Individuals who make over 250,000 per year and couples who make over 500,000 have enjoyed tax cuts for almost 20 years. We need to raise the levels by 1-2 percent to they're at the same levels as they were under President Reagan, which will bring in5 billion a year.

Close corporate tax loopholes. The average taxpayer doesn't have them, why do we extend them to the stockholders of the wealthiest corporations?
Enact a tax on oil severance in our state, which is the only state that does not have this tax. George Bush's Texas and Sarah Palin's Alaska both tax oil taken out of the ground; why shouldn't California?

Besides restoring lost taxes, it's crucial that the State Legislature be able to pass a budget and raise revenue with a majority vote (50 percent plus one). Presently, a required a one-third-plus-one radical minority can, and does, freeze decision-making. That minority effectively controls the Legislature. An initiative now is being circulated for the November ballot to restore a more democratic process.

I may be retired, but I can walk. And I'm going to walk a long way before it's over.
Anna Graves - Why I March:
I graduated from high school in 1965. I always thought I had received a good education. At the time California’s education system was considered the best in the country, if not the world. Today our dropout rate only gets higher and higher. Our education system is now one of the country’s worst-funded.

I graduated with a masters degree in social welfare in 1978, not long after Proposition 13 was passed. All everyone talked about at the graduation ceremony was how all these social services were about to disappear. Indeed, from ’78 to ’81, when I was a clinical social worker in San Francisco working with the chronically mentally ill, I saw the difference. At that time we did not have the epidemic of homelessness we have today. We didn’t have cardboard villages under bridges and men sleeping in parks. The mentally ill could get services in the community.

In the early 1980s we were shocked to learn that some of our clients would go parts of the month without shelter. The problem got worse throughout the ‘80s. Today, we have veterans returning home who aren’t getting support for post traumatic stress disorder. Many end up homeless. Our society should and can be better than this.

I am marching because we need to restore the most basic services we expect from our government. As someone who grew up in small town California, it appeals to me that we’re following in the footsteps of Cesar Chavez. It’s a wonderful opportunity for the public to see the faces behind the services we all take for granted.

Monday, March 22, 2010

March for California pushes through Wasco

SDNN's Editor’s Note: San Diego City College Professor Jim Miller is on the march — the March for California’s Future. During the seven-week trek from Bakersfield to Sacramento, through the heart of California, Miller and fellow marchers will talk to people and organizations along the way to explain their purpose and encourage them to join them in the march and, more important, in their quest. From the march’s Web site: “Our purpose: to transform a crumbling California to the prospering State it once was by investing in public services vital to maintaining our quality of life: our schools, parks, libraries, safety net services, infrastructure and more. … Our broad coalition, which includes the California Federation of Teachers and other unions, leaders in labor, faith, education and business, believe we cannot afford to balance the budget by shortchanging our future and allowing tax cuts for large corporations and millionaires. We deserve a fair tax system that allows us to invest in California’s vital resources .”

On the road from Shafter to Wasco we keep getting waves and honks of encouragement, with people pulling over and offering us water and snacks. We pass by almond groves being crop-dusted and boxes of bees until we hit Wasco. Here we go to True Light Baptist Church and stay for the three-hour service where we are blessed and literally embraced by the entire congregation, one by one, after communion.

Much of the African-American population here fled the dust bowl in Oklahoma during the thirties. Some of the older folks at True Light tell us that the strip malls killed some of their community’s small businesses and the kids are leaving. Now they count the prisoners in the nearby state facility as part of the population. I think of the kid I saw on the street on the way in, cursing the heavens and pounding his fist in his hand.

On the way to McFarland, a woman stops us in tears because her son, a social worker in LA, had been at the march kick-off at Mount Moriah. She works in the community here, helping with the Healthy Families program and serving in a local free clinic. “It’s the poor these cuts are killing,” she says before posing for a picture with us and promising to follow the March for a few days (and she does, bringing us water each time).

In McFarland, we hear the average income is $12,000 a year and we camp in the parking lot of the middle school. After a cold shower in the school locker room, I come out to meet a few teachers and staff, one of whom says, “It’s schools versus prisons, man. And we’re losing.” Then a science teacher mentions that the Race to the Top funds (if they had gotten them) only would have brought them $30,000, not enough to even keep their buses moving for a year. Finally, the school custodian tells us his daughter just got a pink slip. And the news looks worse for the coming year.

In Delano we are met by the United Farm Workers in Cesar Chavez Park where Dolores Huerta tells a rally of about a hundred folks that the top 1 percent of taxpayers and the big corporations need to pay their fair share. Then we march to Forty Acres, the historic home of the UFW, with the elders of the community. I am humbled to walk in those footsteps in the service of another cause, a cause just as crucial to the future of the lives of working people: the right to opportunity for all, the moral imperative of caring for the most needy and weakest of our citizens. Here in Delano, prison work has passed farm work as the most common occupation.

In Allensworth, we have a rally in a state park only open two days a week due to budget cuts. Here, leaders from the African American community speak to the importance of maintaining access to the site of an autonomous black township founded around the turn of the 20th century as a model of self-reliance and dignity. Others note that not just cuts to parks but also cuts to education and aid to poor communities represent a pressing civil rights issue—denial of access to opportunity. When I speak to the crowd, I note that it takes a 2/3 majority to provide needed revenue for our children’s schools but only a simple majority to dole out corporate tax breaks. “If a simple majority is fair for the most privileged amongst us, then the same rules ought to apply to our kids.”

It was a gorgeous afternoon with the sun illuminating the lush green meadow. There are many more miles to go and the journey is hard but, on the road to Tulare, a farm workers’ wife brings us oranges and melons. It’s little kindnesses like that that keep us going.

Read more:

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Marching for a cause 1 mile at a time

Yes, we have more marchers than shown - they're just not in this shot.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Californians March into the Heartland

The article below was written by David Bacon, associate editor at Pacific News Service. Bacon is the author of several books on immigration, most recently Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants (Beacon). The article appeared in the national publication The Nation on 17 March 2010. It's rewarding to receive this national attention!
Californians March into the Heartland
By David Bacon
March 17, 2010

Shafter, CA

As the March for California's Future left Bakersfield, marchers trudged past almond trees just breaking into their spring blooms. From Shafter and Wasco across dozens of miles to the west, white and pink petals have turned the ground rosy, while branches overhead are dusted with the delicate green of new leaves.

The San Joaquin Valley's width--over seventy-five miles at its widest point--is even more impressive than its length, as it stretches several hundred miles from the Tehachapi Mountains in the south overlooking Bakersfield to the delta of the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers in the north. In the heart of that delta lies Sacramento, the state's capital and the marchers' goal.

This immense space is filled with almond orchards, grape vineyards, dairies, and alfalfa and cotton fields. A myriad of crops, grown on a huge industrial scale, make obvious the historical source of the state's wealth. For almost two centuries, that wealth has located California's political center here. The conservatism of the valley's political and economic establishment has been the main obstacle to the growth of progressive politics, which long ago shaped the coastal metropolises of San Francisco and Los Angeles. For decades growers succeeded in preventing rural industrialization, for fear it would bring unions and higher wages. Even mass housing was discouraged, until the corporations that own the land realized that the profits of development rivaled those of grapes and pears.

The March for California's Future is challenging that power, and the stranglehold it still exerts over the state. Holding the budget hostage while California unemployment tops 12 percent, growers and their political allies here have slashed the funding for schools and social service. Now teachers, homecare workers and those who depend on public services are walking into the growers' front yard, defying the past.

When cotton was king and thousands of workers were still needed to bring in the harvest, immigrants and Dust Bowl refugees rose in rebellion in 1933. The Associated Farmers kept the valley under virtual martial law, while growers gunned down strikers in front of the sheriffs' station in Pixley, a town along the march's route. In the '60s the United Farm Workers was born in another town on the marchers' way--Delano. The UFW's most implacable enemies were always here--the San Joaquin grape growers, and the politicians who protected their crops, their water, their cheap labor and their profits.

Valley Republicans are still mounting the watchtowers along that same wall of protection. Two brothers, Tom and Bill Berryhill, represent adjacent districts in the state assembly. Tom, a fourth-generation farmer, lives in Modesto, home of the Gallo wine empire. Bill, who represents Ceres, sits on the board of the Allied Grape Growers. Both inherited their membership in the political class here from their father, legendary Republican legislator Clare Berryhill.

Today Valley Republicans are a primary obstacle to the passage of a budget that would continue to fund basic services for Californians, especially schools and healthcare. The state has a requirement that two-thirds of the legislature approve any budget. Even more important, any tax increase takes a two-thirds vote as well. So even though urban Democrats have had a majority for years in both chambers, a solid Republican block can keep the state in a continual economic crisis until Democrats agree to slash spending. With huge deficits from declining tax revenues, and a recession boosting state unemployment to over 10 percent, converting a budgetary crisis into a political one is not difficult.

Ironically, nowhere is unemployment higher than in California's rural counties, often twice as high as on the coast. Small agricultural towns like Shafter and Delano are filled with workers who can't find jobs, while at the same time budget cuts reduce the social services for unemployed families and shower teachers in the local schools with pink slips.

Bill Berryhill bemoans that Stockton's schools have just sent out 192 layoff notices. But turning reality on its head, the budget cuts demanded by the Berryhills and their colleagues are not responsible, they say. The culprits are taxes and regulations on business. "While the state flirts with tax increases, our agricultural, trucking and educational sectors continue to decline," he says. "Since I first arrived at the capital fourteen months ago, I have been shocked to see the barrage of misguided proposals for tax increases, fee hikes and more regulations on families and job creators. We already pay some of the highest taxes in the nation, including gas and sales taxes, and yet some lawmakers want us to pay more."

One of their political allies is Jeff Denham, a state senator whose district not only includes a large chunk of the San Joaquin Valley but stretches across the mountains to the neighboring Salinas Valley, fondly referred to by agribusiness as "the nation's salad bowl." Denham gets an A+ rating from the Howard Jarvis Taxpayer Association (architects of the tax-cutting policy that is driving the state into astronomical debt) and a perfect score from the California Taxpayers Association. Denham also owns Denham Plastics, which makes those plastic clamshells farm workers pack with strawberries out in the fields. His family also owns many of the almond trees breaking into bud as the marchers walk by.

Behind these legislators are not only the other growers they see out on the golf links but the most extreme element of the state's Republican Party, a group far to the right in almost anyone's book. California's Republican Party is now dominated by the California Republican Assembly, which gave the Berryhills 67 percent ratings. Abel Maldonado, a Republican who voted for the budget last session, got 22 percent, lower than some Democrats. The Stanislaus County GOP lists its principles as "smaller government, lower taxes, individual freedom, strong national security, respect for the sanctity of life, traditional marriage, the importance of family and the exceptionalism of America."

"If government quit draining economic life blood in excess taxes and quit meddling in the private sector's affairs, economic recovery would be sooner and smoother," editorializes the Orange County Register. "Instead, even in the face of public opposition, government arrogantly looks for creative new ways to part Californians from their money and for presumptuous schemes to show businesses how to do business.... the private sector can overcome California's economic problems just fine without government's intrusive and counterproductive 'help.' More taxes and more programs aren't needed."

That's who the marchers are saving California's future from. And their plan? Take the anger of the youth protests over the impact of the budget cuts on education right to the door of the Berryhills, Denham and their golf partners. Their march will take forty-eight days, as it winds through the small towns that send those politicians to Sacramento.

San Diego community college teacher and marcher Jim Miller has observed the severity of the crisis most clearly in education. "Over $8 billion has been cut from education in the last year, in San Diego alone $52 million," he says. "Statewide we're serving over 200,000 students we're not being funded for. We've had to lay off scores of part-time instructors. My job is to serve our students and I'm unable to. Community colleges are the most accessible door of opportunity for working class students and particularly communities of color. We're witnessing the destruction of the California dream in education."

But Miller is also proud that the demands of the march go beyond education, to "fighting for an economy and a government that works for everybody. We're not saying save education by throwing old people out of their homecare, by getting rid of healthcare for poor kids, by closing down state parks or privatizing prisons. This is about the future of the state of California." Without such unity, he says, "we'll see a scarcity model, where people say take someone else's piece of the pie, not mine. That's a race to the bottom."

Doug Moore, another marcher, is executive director of United Domestic Workers Local 3930. He emphasizes that in small San Joaquin Valley towns, the budget cuts on the table in Sacramento could even lead to the elimination of home care itself. "Statewide there are 127,000 nursing home beds, but only 20,000 available. So where are people going to go? In California we have record unemployment already. Now you're talking about another 350,000 people going on benefits. The governor's budget solution is not a solution. It's a disaster."

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger earns Moore's ire because, although he distances himself from hard-right Republicans in the media, he carries their antitax, budget-cutting program in the capitol. It takes a two-thirds vote to override his veto, so his alliance with Republican legislators allows them to dictate that budgets can only be based on slashing spending, not on new revenues.

The UDW intends to use the march to strengthen its relationships with voters in an area of California with a very conservative image. "People in the communities we're walking through will be supportive if we build relationships," Moore predicts. "Whether you're conservative or not, you're hurting because of the decisions the governor and some of the legislators are making. As we walk through, if we're registering people to vote, educating them on the issues at hand, organizing town hall meetings to hold elected officials accountable, we'll have an impact."

The march was originally proposed by a group of activists and local union leaders in the California Federation of Teachers. Miller, who was deeply involved in those discussions, saw it as an outgrowth of the wave of student protests that has greeted budget cuts and fee hikes in education. That student ferment led to a proposal to boycott classes and mount demonstrations on March 4, in a statewide Day of Action to save education. The March for California's Future was then scheduled to kick off from a rally in Los Angeles, followed the next day by another in Bakersfield, at the southern foot of the San Joaquin Valley. When March 4 arrived, demonstrations and marches swept the state. The entire UC campus in Santa Cruz was closed when students blocked its two access roads.

"The LA rally was spectacular," Miller enthused. "The church holds a thousand, and there were hundreds more trying to get in. In Bakersfield, people were waving from their houses and came out and joined--I don't think that's something that happens much there." Miller counted 565 people who came from San Diego to the Los Angeles event, including three busses of students from San Diego Community College, where he teaches.

At the Bakersfield kickoff, teachers and students marching to the Martin Luther King Jr. Park were joined by a huge contingent of home care workers, mobilized by UDW. "As inspiring as March 4 was, though, it was a one-day thing," cautions Miller. "I hope this march is a way to take a seven-week approach, a long sustained conversation with the people of the state of California, trying to raise the most difficult issues. Like, we've got to raise revenue someplace. If we don't raise revenue, we're at the point where the choices are stark. We've got to do something to address the two-thirds majority rule. If we don't do it, we're going to be in permanent gridlock."

For his part, Moore credits the CFT "for taking a bold step and then reaching out and saying, 'we need other people.' If they hadn't taken that step, we'd all probably be working the same way we always have, in our silos. And what you see on the march here is, no silos. This isn't just about public education; it's about public services and a fair tax system. As long as we stick to that, this coalition will grow."

Miller agrees. "We want to save the entire social contract in the state," he explains. "What's inspiring people is that different unions, different communities are talking to each other, in a shared struggle against the decimation of the future of the vast majority of people."

Officially, the union and other march organizers have adopted three goals:

Restore the promise of public education;

A government and economy that work for all Californians;

Fair tax and budget policies to fund California's future.

Already State Assemblymember Alberto Torrico has introduced a bill that would require state tax officials to impose an oil severance tax and use the proceeds for education. California is the only major oil-producing state in the nation without one. Predictably, state Republicans have rejected the proposal. Another effort is underway to collect signatures for a ballot initiative to remove the two-thirds requirement for passing a budget. That idea is spreading widely on college campuses in the wake of the March 4 actions.

Both Moore and Miller feel personally motivated to march, in addition to their larger political goals. "One of my sons is a school teacher who just got his pink slip," Moore says. "I have a daughter who's a senior at San Diego State, and she participated in the actions there. She needed a particular class to graduate in May and that class was eliminated. They know I'm walking and they love it. I'm doing it for them."

Back in San Diego, Miller's wife, Kelly Mayhew, also a teacher at City College, has taken over part of his teaching load, and the full parenting responsibilities for their son. But "as soon as Jim came and told me about the idea, I was sold on it immediately," she says. "People aren't really awake to the long-term consequences of these budget cuts. A whole generation of kids is going to be pushed out of our educational system. And as teachers, we're so often good at making do with less." "She was very emotional when I left," Miller recalls. "That part of it's hard. And of course I'm 44 years old, soon to be 45, with a bad back and asthma, so it's probably not the best time in my life to choose to walk 260 miles. But really in the big picture, it's a small sacrifice in comparison to what's at stake."

Delano, birthplace of the farm workers union and heart of San Joaquin Valley agriculture, now has two prisons and a jail. More of the town's permanent residents probably work as guards than in the fields. But so far, the response from local people has been very supportive, Miller and Moore agree. "Even here, in one of the most desolate stretches, cars are honking their support," Miller says. "I thought we might get some of the right-wing backlash--tea baggers giving us the bird out the window--but I haven't seen any of that.

"Really, someone has to do something," he says. "Personal sacrifice can help us demonstrate the importance of our message. Sometimes you have to lead by example. I can't ask someone to do something I'm not willing to do myself. And I'm convinced that if we just do what we always do, we're certain to lose. We need to capture peoples' imagination, and find an affirmative form of struggle."

Most of all, Miller is proud of the impact the events of recent weeks have had on his own students. "They're educating themselves," he enthuses. "They have a remarkable understanding of what's going on. It's inspiring to see how sharp they've become on arcane matters, like split roll tax and oil extraction tax. As bad as the situation is, that's a hopeful sign I think."

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Happy Saint Patrick's Day

'Tis the day when the entire world is Irish and what better way to celebrate the occasion than with an adult beverage or two. What will my choice of adult beverage indulgence be this 17th of March? Why, 'twill be Jameson's Rarest Vintage Reserve Irish whiskey. However, at $250 a bottle ye have to be special indeed to sip from my bottle!

But don't fret. Even if you aren't in that rarefied position of sharing my Jameson's, in the spirit of celebrating the day of all things Irish, let the green times roll and have a pint or two (or three...) of Guinness on me. Cheers!

Monday, March 15, 2010

Marching for California’s future

By Jim Miller, Guest Contributor

Editor’s Note: San Diego City College Professor Jim Miller is on the march — the March for California’s Future. During the seven-week trek from Bakersfield to Sacramento, through the heart of California, Miller and fellow marchers will talk to people and organizations along the way to explain their purpose and encourage them to join them in the march and, more important, in their quest. From the march’s Web site: “Our purpose: to transform a crumbling California to the prospering State it once was by investing in public services vital to maintaining our quality of life: our schools, parks, libraries, safety net services, infrastructure and more. … Our broad coalition, which includes the California Federation of Teachers and other unions, leaders in labor, faith, education and business, believe we cannot afford to balance the budget by shortchanging our future and allowing tax cuts for large corporations and millionaires. We deserve a fair tax system that allows us to invest in California’s vital resources .”

Exclusive to SDNN
Jim Miller’s blog, Week 1:
It’s Saturday evening and I’m sitting in the blogmobile looking out at the twilight through the trees on the street outside Shafter High School trying to write but people keep knocking on the door. First it’s the Chief of Police who has come to greet the marchers and who tells us he’s given up on Sacramento’s dysfunction and learned how to survive despite them. He tells us that lobbying up there is like dealing with a bunch of squabbling children. Then it’s Adrian, JC, and Ken from the local high school who have stopped by to say hi and tell us that they’ve laid off large numbers of teachers in the county schools and this has made their classes too big and is threatening their drama club budget, arts, and sports funding. They shake my hand and invite me to their play based on Don Quixote, later that evening.

And, as I sit back down to write, I think of the trucks full of farm workers who honked and waved at us as we marched the eleven miles from Bakersfield. I remember the train that passed with a long line of flat beds carrying tanks along the tracks between a prison and an oil field. I remember the woman who drove out to bring us water after seeing the March on TV. She took our picture and said, “Thanks for marching for us. Somebody’s got to do something.”

I think of the families in the little houses along the March through Bakersfield waving out windows or coming outside to join us. And I remember the sweet young children in Compassion Christian Center who sang to us after the teacher in their after-school program told us that funding cuts are turning more and more of them into latch key kids because their parents can’t afford to pay without aid from the state. And before that at Mount Moriah Baptist Church in South Los Angeles where the pews were packed and rocking with prayers and pleas for justice—for the old, the sick, the disabled, and the young being robbed of their dreams. “It’s not about saving my piece of the pie at the expense of somebody else’s,” I said in a speech to the crowd. “It’s about a just future for all Californians.” This is where we are. We spend more on prisons than on schools. We won’t tax oil companies but will throw the poor and the needy under the bus.

Just after dawn the morning before the buses left from San Diego, a pastor, a rabbi, and a Buddhist monk blessed the journey—laid hands and prayed and rang a bell hoping that I kissed the earth with each step of the journey. I am not particularly religious, but I wept with a heart full of desperate hope despite the cruel times we face. That’s why I’m marching on this road to justice.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Horse of the Year, My Ass

Don't worry, ny blog is coming - I've been swamped but I definitely have content to share and will get to it sooner rather than later.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

40-Acres Ranch in Delano

Editor's Note: Tonight our marchers will camp at the 40-acres ranch, home of the United Farm Workers. What are your thoughts on Cesar Chavez' and UFW's legacy?

Tomorrow there will be a rally at Allensworth

Click on photo to enlarge

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The March Route

Editor's Note: This is the route the marchers are taking on their way to Sacramento - click on the map to enlarge it.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Why I'm Marching

I'll be posting photos, bios and statements from marchers who will walk the entire way to the state capitol in Sacramento. The first person you'll meet below is one of our local guild's Vice-Presidents as well as an individual I am proud to serve with.

Jim Miller

Why I March:
Jim Miller teaches English and Labor Studies at San Diego City College. He lives in San Diego with his wife, Kelly Mayhew, and their son, Walt.

I am marching for my son, Walt, a kindergartener at McKinley Elementary School in San Diego. I don’t want his class size to get even bigger and his education to suffer as a result. I don’t think the families of children in public schools should have to pay out of pocket for arts, music, language, library materials, sports, and other essential parts of their children’s education.

I want to be able to afford to put my son through college without destroying my retirement, and I want the same for my neighbors. I want my students at City College to succeed and not have to worry about dropping out of school for economic reasons. I want the kids of the farm workers in the towns I’ll be marching through in the Central Valley (where the median annual income is $5,000 in some places) to have a better future, not to have the fate of a pauper.

I am marching because we are pondering closing a host of our beautiful state parks and seriously considering privatizing our prisons. We are slamming shut the doors of opportunity and gutting our infrastructure. All of this is being done in the service of protecting the interests of the most fortunate individuals and large corporations at the expense of the greater good. This is not a just future for California. We cannot let it stand. We must restore majority rule to Sacramento’s broken budgeting process and bring back a fair and equitable progressive tax system.

We need to get serious and ask ourselves what kind of future we want for our children. If, to borrow a line from Dr. Martin Luther King, our futures are inextricably bound to the future of our neighbors, then it¹s time to realize that if we don¹t invest in the future of ALL Californians, we will all suffer. Our economy, communities, and families depend upon us having a commitment to something larger than ourselves.

That is why I am marching to Sacramento, to make a case for a future California that works for all of us.