SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Political contributions from powerful special interests are more than gifts to favorite candidates – they are often down payments for preferential treatment from elected officials who accept the money.

Teachers unions play the “purchase-a-politician” game very well. A good example is the California Teachers Association, the state’s largest teachers union and a powerful player on the political scene.

In the 2010 and 2012 campaign cycles, the CTA doled out approximately $57 million in campaign contributions, according to FollowTheMoney.org. Almost all of that money went to Democratic candidates.

The money is not wasted. The CTA receives a handsome return on its investment when state intervention is needed to protect the union’s political and financial interests.

For example, the CTA has been campaigning hard to unionize the teachers in the California Virtual Academies (CAVA), a chain of 11 virtual K-12 schools. Having more union members means more revenue for the CTA and more political clout in Sacramento.

Not surprisingly, that effort is running into opposition from officials of the virtual schools, who claim the unionization process has not been conducted legally, and fear that union collective bargaining would be disruptive and expensive for their schools.

That’s where the CTA’s purchased politicians come in.

Eight Democratic state legislators – including the past president pro tempore of the California Senate – have been contacting Katrina Abston, Head of Schools for CAVA – encouraging (or attempting to intimidate) CAVA into dropping its objections to the unionization effort.

Not coincidentally, all of those legislators have accepted significant campaign cash donations from the CTA.

The bullying effort is not surprising to former state Sen. Gloria Romero, a California Democrat who has witnessed how the CTA and other labor organizations wield power over Democrats in the state legislature.

“It’s intended to be a show of force,” Romero said. “They are basically telling the virtual schools, ‘Comply or we will pass laws.’ The union is sending its henchmen out to point fingers at the schools.”

Politicians parrot the union line

Several of the contacts from state lawmakers came in the form of voicemail messages left for Abston.

One came from California State Sen. Darrell Steinberg, who until recently served as president pro tempore of the Senate. In the voicemail he identifies himself as “president” of the chamber, but that constitutional role is filled by the lieutenant governor.

“I’m Darryl Steinberg, president of the state senate in California. It’s a Wednesday morning just afternoon and I hope you’re doing well.

“This is an unsolicited call but I was just calling – I know you’re in the midst of a controversy over whether or not to appeal the teachers’ decision to unionize and I guess I was just calling to urge CAVA not to do that. I think in the long run it’s much better to have the teachers union on your side when it comes to the whole online, alternative education movement here – that’s just my opinion.

“It’s better to form alliances and I just wanted to give you the benefit of my opinion, for what it’s worth. You may not think it’s worth it, but I just wanted to give you my opinion. I’m at (916) 651-4006 if you want to call me back. Okay? All the best to you. Thank you. Bu-bye.”

What prompted this call? Perhaps it had something to do with the $37,200 Steinberg received in contributions from various unions – mostly the CTA – in recent years.

Another message was left by State Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, who has accepted at least $8,200 from the CTA.

“Hi Katrina, I’m Lorena Gonzalez. I’m an assemblywoman from the 80th assembly district, a member of the education committee for the state of California assembly.

“I am calling because I have had teachers reach out to me from your school and I know that they’re in the process and have been certified by PERB as having majority recognition for their union and I know that they’d like to start a process of bargaining and so I’m calling to encourage you to do that.

“You know, there’s a lot of back-and-forth that’s gone on and obviously what we’d like to see from the state perspective – what I’d like to see – is that there’s a process that supports a speedy resolution and that you don’t use legal maneuvers or union-busting tactics to delay the process.

“So I really appreciate your help in that. If you have any questions or if there’s any questions that you think I need answered, you can give me a call back here in my office in Sacramento at (916) 319-2080. Thanks so much. Bu-bye.”

Ugly phone call and form letters

Other Democratic lawmakers have been doing the CTA’s bidding, as well.

Abston said she was contacted by telephone by State Assemblyman Roger Hernandez on Aug. 6. Hernandez is the chairman of the state Assembly’s Committee on Labor and Employment.

“He said it was in my best interest to play nice,” Abston told EAGnews. “He said ‘We at the state hear a lot of things.’ He said it was in my best interest to go along with what the union was asking for.

“I think he was trying to strong-arm me into complying.”

A spokesman for Hernandez declined to comment on Abston’s description of the conversation, and said it should not be published because it’s “hearsay.”

Hernandez accepted at least $14,900 from the CTA between 2010 and 2012.

Abston also produced copies of letters she received from eight Democratic members of the California legislature, suggesting that CAVA drop its protest of the manner in which CTA has tried to organize the teachers.

Interestingly, the letters were remarkably similar.

The opening line of an Oct. 2 letter send by state Sen. Marty Block said, “I was very disappointed to learn that California Virtual Academies (CAVA) is continuing its effort to disenfranchise certified faculty by opposing their legally protected right to organize a union.”

The opening lines of two other letters, sent by Assembly members Roger Dickinson and Das Williams, were exactly the same, except for Dickinson and Williams started their letters with “I am very troubled to hear” rather than “I was very disappointed to learn.”

Block has accepted $45,600 from the CTA in recent years. Dickinson accepted at least $35,600 from the CTA while Williams accepted at least $29,500.

A May 2 letter sent by Assembly member Gonzalez (mentioned above) had the following opening paragraph:

“It has recently come to my attention that the employees at California Virtual Academies (CAVA) decided to unionize with the California Teachers Association. I support their legally protected decision and am confident they are committed to improving both learning and teaching conditions at CAVA.”

Three other letters, sent by Williams and Assembly members Philip Ting, Jose Medina and Susan Eggman, had the exact same lead paragraph. Another letter, sent by Hernandez (mentioned above), had nearly the same lead, except it started with “As chair of the Assembly Committee on Labor and Employment…”

Ting accepted at least $27,900 from CTA, Medina accepted at least $27,800 and Eggman accepted at least $16,000.

The obvious suspicion is that CTA prepared these letters – literally telling the elected state officials what to say and pretty much how to say it – and the lawmakers dutifully signed them and sent them out.

Katie Vavao, a spokesperson for Assemblyman Williams, confirmed that.

“That’s not at all unusual in California – it’s typically how advocacy works,” Vavao said. “It’s not unusual for advocacy groups like CTA to send letters to help them advocate on a particular issue.”

Vavao said the right of teachers to join unions is a “very passionate issue” for Williams.

Considering his passion for the issue, why didn’t Williams take the time to write letters of his own?

“I can ask the assemblyman that,” Vavao said.

EAGnews tried to gain access to any communications that might exist between CTA officials and the lawmakers listed above, regarding the CAVA issue, but learned that the legislature has exempted itself from public record requests.

Disputed petition drive

The CTA is claiming victory in its battle to unionize the 11 CAVA schools because more than 50 percent of teachers in those schools recently signed a petition to have a union.

The California Public Employment Relations Board recently declared that the union had collected enough teacher signatures to organize the schools.

Now the CTA wants to begin the collective bargaining process with CAVA.

But the governing boards of the 11 virtual schools are objecting. They have filed an objection with PERB, claiming the unionization effort was done illegally.

The schools claim they are separate entities, with their own local governing boards, so any effort to unionize teachers must be done within each individual school, rather than statewide.

“Each of our boards is chartered by a different school district,” said Kelly Krug, a board member for “CAVA @ Sutter,” one of the CAVA schools that operates in northern California. “We don’t have a statewide charter. That doesn’t exist in California. We’re chartered by individual districts with different governing boards for each district.”

School officials also claim that the union petitions listed the organizing union as the CTA, but the new union that would actually represent the teachers is called California Virtual Educators United.

They say legal union petitions must identify the name of the actual union that would represent the teachers.

“The letter I received was from the California Virtual Educators,” Krug said. “I haven’t received anything from the CTA.”

Both Krug and Abston strongly suspect that many teachers have been pressured or misled into signing the union petition.

There was no private ballot election for teachers – or any election of any type – to certify the union. Organizers simply relied on petition signatures, however they managed to secure them.

“Most of the calls I have received from teachers have indicated that they are feeling bullied by the advocates of the union,” Krug said. “I’m hearing organizers were calling teachers at home, pressuring them to sign the petition.”

Abston said the union petition effort went further than phone calls.

“They were actually showing up at (teacher’s) homes, telling them to sign the petitions and they would get them more information later,” she said. “If the teachers were not saavy, they might have thought they would be free to change their minds later.”

Blind loyalty to union, no concern for students

Obviously school officials could easily be intimidated by the messages from state legislators, because virtual charter schools are public schools, and depend on state funding to operate.

“I know that in speaking to Katrina (Abston) immediately following those messages (she received from pro-union lawmakers), she felt very intimidated,” Krug said. “She felt attacked, and unjustifiably so. We’re doing everything we can to make sure teachers are heard, but fundamentally we keep going back to what’s best for students.”

Union supporters did not simply enlist state lawmakers to help pressure CAVA into dropping its resistance to unionization. They also lowered themselves to making at least one baseless complaint to the California Department of Education regarding special education instruction at a CAVA school.

The complaint accused the CAVA @ Fresno school of “failure to implement the individualized education program (IEP).” It was filed by union activist Heath Madom.

IEPs are specific instructional plans customized for individual special education students, and schools by law must implement them.

But the spot on the state complaint form that’s supposed to list the names of the affected students name only said “various.” How is the state supposed to investigate the breach of a student’s IEP without knowing the name (or names) of alleged victims?

Madom’s complaint was recently dismissed without action by the DOE.

“The complaint was bogus, and yet another scare tactic of CTA,” Abston said.

More than anything, school officials are upset because of the elected officials’ blind loyalty to the union, which is obviously a byproduct of the financial support they receive from CTA.

They believe that if the lawmakers were truly concerned about the quality of education for students, they would have done some research to determine for themselves if a union presence was compatible with virtual schools.

Like most charter school operators, CAVA officials say the absence of a teachers union gives them the flexibility they need to try innovative instructional techniques without union permission.

CAVA officials also note that, without a union, they are free to assign teachers based on their strengths and abilities, rather than their seniority in the union.

They also say their teachers currently have the ability to communicate directly with administrators, something that could easily be lost if a teachers union arrives on the scene and insists on speaking on behalf of all members.

Finally, CAVA officials say a union presence could cause a loss of focus on families and students, and greatly increase labor costs and jeopardize their operations

Abston said she has not received one phone call – or any sort of correspondence – from Democratic lawmakers wondering how the presence of a teachers union might affect school operations.

“Not once did anyone contact me to discuss our program, to learn about how we operate and the true working environment of our program,” Abston said.

Krug noted that all the pro-union arguments are focused on teachers rather than students.

“(The lawmakers’ interference) is irresponsible if you look at it from a point of view of student achievement,” Krug said. “It’s just geared toward teacher job satisfaction, not student achievement. I don’t think student achievement is a union goal.”

Romero is not surprised that the CTA and its allied legislators are plowing ahead with the unionization effort, with little consideration for the impact it may have on instruction and students.

“They do that every day with 6.1 million children in California (traditional schools) anyway,” Romero said. “Now they want to do that to virtual schools.”

EAGnews interviewed Evan McLaughlin, chief of staff for Assemblywoman Gonzalez, regarding Gonzalez’ effort to gain knowledge about virtual schools before openly promoting the union movement.

McLaughlin was asked by email, “Did (Gonzalez) contact the virtual schools prior to sending her message, to determine if this move would be good for the schools and their students?”

He responded by writing, “The assemblywoman did contact the school.”

When asked to name the person at CAFA that Gonzalez spoke to, McLaughlin wrote, “It was a letter. I can find it for you.”

McLaughlin was told that EAGnews would wait several days to receive a copy of such a letter. Nothing ever arrived.

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