David Bacon Stories & Photographs

By David Bacon
CFT Perspectives, 4/08

While John Kirk teaches Keynesian and classical economic theory, his students are as likely to find their textbook is “Labor’s Untold Story” as a drier, more conservative tome. Written by historian Herbert J. Morais and feature writer Richard O. Boyer, Labor’s Untold Story was originally published in 1955 by Cameron Associates, a leftwing publisher, at the height of Cold War hysteria. Then, in the middle of the 1969 national General Electric strike, the book was republished by the United Electrical Workers, one of the country’s most progressive unions.

It is a gripping, eye-opening, well-documented account of the American labor movement from its beginnings through the mid-1950s. The book brings alive the great figures and achievements of working class history, like Sacco and Vanzetti, the Molly Maguires, and Albert Parsons and the Haymarket martyrs who began the movement for the 8-hour day.

Then-UE General Secretary James Matles said “it reads like an adventure as it tells the real history of the union movement in America." For Kirk, “that book made a major change in my whole outlook on life. I realized, what makes a difference in our lives isn’t so much who’s President. Unions and the labor movement have a much greater impact on working people.”

Part of the reason why Labor’s Untold Story is on his syllabus is that the lives of working people in general are absent from mainstream histories. “I bring in a lot of labor history,” Kirk says. “I use Gerald Hunt’s Laboring for Rights, or then Monopoly Capital, by Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy, so that students can get some understanding of a Marxist approach to economics. Then we’ll go on to John Maynard Keynes and classical economic theory. There is more than one way of looking at the world, even if more radical perspectives are often excised from the accepted curriculum. And our students can only understand where they are by finding out how they got there.”

With that perspective, it’s not surprising that Kirk has been a union activist almost since his university days, and that he came up during the ferment and turmoil of the 1960s. Son of a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, Kirk grew up in Redwood City. He went to the University of California in Berkeley, and graduated in 1964, just months before the campus was shaken by the first of the 1960s’ great student revolts – the Free Speech Movement. He then got his masters degree in economics at San Jose State University.

When he finished, Kirk began applying for teaching jobs, but only one community college district was hiring, for positions in the Imperial Valley. So he and his wife moved to Brawley, one of 25 new faculty members. “We were paid $6700 a year to start,” he remembers, “so a bunch of us young people got on the negotiating team, and won a $9000 salary, a significant raise.”

Nevertheless, after completing his two-year commitment to the community college there, he and his wife decided to return to the Bay Area. One can only imagine that the trustees were not sorry to see him go.

After spending the next year as a freeway flyer, Kirk was hired as a fulltime instructor at College of San Mateo. But after working a year, he was fired to allow the return of another teacher who’d gone off to law school. Kirk didn’t do anything to contest his termination for a year, after being told by a lawyer for the California Teachers Association that nothing could be done.

That was when he met Pat Manning, who held a PhD in African history, and was the son of John Manning, who worked for many years for the World Federation of Trade Unions in Prague, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic.) Kirk remembers admiring Manning because “he did all the budget work for the AFT locals in the state. He showed me how we could have fought my case.” And as a result, Manning became one of the greatest influences on his life.

After Kirk returned to College of San Mateo the next year, he and Manning formed a formidable team. As activists in the California Federation of Teachers, the two pulled together the organizing committee for what became the Community College Council, and once it was up and running, convinced the federation to come up with money to pay part time organizers.

The two wanted the union to organize community college chapters, in preparation for the passage of state collective bargaining legislation for higher education. Ironically, the CTA won the first election at CSM, but four years later, Kirk, Manning and others led the drive to certify the CFT as the faculty bargaining agent.

Then, just before the law changed in the mid-1970s, Kirk won tenure at CSM. “The law originally was very contradictory, saying that if you taught less than 60% you’d be temporary forever, and then said that no one could be temporary for more than two semesters. I got my tenure just before the Peralta decision, in which the Supreme Court said that if you’d been teaching part time before 1967 you could become permanent, but if you’d been hired later (as I was), you were lost.” In 1980, after threatening the district with a suit for cutting his teaching load, a new chancellor finally gave him a fulltime position.

“The way I was treated motivated me to get active in the union, to keep others from being treated the same way,” Kirk says. “I’ve held every position in our union – president, executive secretary, chief negotiator – but I’ve been doing grievances for 30 years. I like it better. In negotiations you have to compromise. In grievances, you get to win.”

One of his first cases involved just the kind of issues that had propelled him into activism. A teacher had been hired at Skyline College, in the San Mateo district, and then on March 14 given a bad evaluation, and on March 15 fired for it, the deadline for the district to terminate a probationary employee. “The law at the time allowed administrators to terminate a first-year teacher for no reason, and they wanted to create an open position for someone else,” Kirk remembers. “The CTA lawyer told him it was perfectly legal, so the teacher didn’t do anything for a year. The he came to me, and we filed a grievance, showing that the district had violated the mandatory dates for evaluations. PERB ruled that the district board can decide whether or not to follow its own policy, and a Superior Court judge upheld that decision, even wagging his finger in the face of our lawyer, Bob Bezemek. But the State Court of Appeals overturned that, and granted the first job protection for first-year teachers.”

Eventually Kirk and the union negotiated better protections in the CFT local’s contract, under which a probationary teacher can challenge a bad evaluation on procedural grounds. “But at the time, it really affected a lot of people who had very few rights,” he emphasizes. “We got him $50,000, a lot of money in those days, and he took off for North Dakota.”

Union grievances have also challenged unfair treatment of part timers. One part-time counselor, who worked more than 60% of a full-time load, was fired despite a positive evaluation, after the college president was reprimanded by the Chancellor for allowing her to work over the limit. The union filed a grievance for retaliation and the arbitrator agreed.

Other grievances have highlighted basic issues of teachers’ rights. In one, a faculty advisor to a Latino campus organization was reassigned to the administration building demanding improved services for Latino students. After the union filed a grievance challenging the reassignment, an arbitrator ordered the administration to place her back in her original position.

Today Kirk is still doing grievances, with five headed toward arbitration. “We have a bunch of new deans, who think they can reinterpret the contract. Our chancellor is a former accountant, and our new president taught accounting, so they have no conception of what a university or college really is, and try to manage it like a corporation. Fortunately, we have a lot of support from the faculty, and a very active membership.”

Kirk hopes to instill that same activist spirit in his students. Doubtless thinking of the chancellor, he assigns William Domhoff’s “Who Rules America?” “I try to present them with evidence in class that shows that the purpose of business is business – making the maximum profit. If they can understand why inequality is such a part of our system, they’ll figure out for themselves why unions are necessary.”

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-

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