On Aug. 9, 1927, a group of nine men and one woman assembled for CSEA's first conference. During the three-day meeting, they established a framework for the union and set an agenda of progress that continued to elevate the status of classified employees for the next three-quarters of a century.
From the Capitol to the bargaining table, CSEA has pursued the interests of classified employees up and down the state, transforming non-certificated, support staff into classified professionals and respected partners in the education community. Through the years, the faces have changed, but classified employees have remained dedicated to one goal: helping the students in our public schools and colleges.
The quest for retirement benefits
The first step was to secure retirement benefits for custodians throughout the state. In 1928, just a year after CSEA formed, the union helped push through SB 551, which allowed school districts to establish retirement benefits for all school employees, not just teachers. More importantly, it became the first law on the books recognizing school employees other than teachers and administrators.
The legacy of that pension quest can be felt today. Under the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS), classified employees enjoy some of the best retirement benefits in the country. In 1999, CSEA helped pass SB 400, landmark legislation that dramatically increased classified employees retirement income.
Great Depression spawns professional growth
In 1929, when California and the rest of the country plunged into the Great Depression, CSEA was put to the test. Workers became plentiful and jobs grew scarce. For classified employees (known at the time simply as non-certificated workers), the Depression meant an increase in their workday to 12 hours per day, six days a week with wages as low as taxpayers could get them. It wasn't long before impoverished school districts began trimming budgets and classified jobs.
At the union's 1933 conference, Dr. Frank Hart addressed the delegates. Better trained custodians would save districts far more than their cost, he explained. Custodians themselves would have to raise their standards if they ever hoped to raise their pay. It was a challenge that classified employees were ready to meet, and thus began CSEA's next crusade professional growth.
For seven decades, CSEA has prided itself on creating job training opportunities for its members. A member survey in 2000 found that 67 percent of CSEA members believe that improving professional growth opportunities is very important. CSEA is working to meet the needs of its members by negotiating career ladders and incentive programs and by offering scholarships and career grants.
CSEA gets respect at the Capitol
In the years following World War II, CSEA established itself as an important part of the education community. In just 10 years, membership shot up from 1,400 members to nearly 10,000. Having found strength in numbers, CSEA was ready for an astounding run on the Legislature. The union demanded that basic rights and benefits, which had been enjoyed by teachers for years, should finally be extended to classified employees.
Among the bills that passed were the 40-hour week, sick leave, vacation and bereavement leave and laws prohibiting age discrimination. This historic achievement for CSEA later became known as The Classified Bill of Rights. Classified employees, who had long considered themselves partners in education, were finally getting some of the recognition they deserved.
Once the Classified Bill of Rights was passed, CSEA never looked back. The union pressed on to secure paid holidays, salary increases for reclassified positions, salary protections for instructional aides, the right to unemployment insurance, collective bargaining rights, workplace safety measures and improved pension benefits. CSEA members also worked to defeat a number of harmful proposals including school vouchers, pension raids and cuts in education funding.
Meet and beg Bargaining
By the 1960s, CSEA had established itself as an important organization in the education community. But for all of its strength in representing classified employees at the state level, the union still lacked the teeth it needed at the local level namely at the bargaining table. Collective bargaining was still a decade away, and workers were left at the mercy of their employer. Under the Winton Act, employees would meet and confer with district officials to discuss salaries and benefits. Classified employees simply referred to it as meet and beg.
Job security was a matter of how much your boss liked you. Just 5.7 percent of CSEA members surveyed in 1971 felt satisfied with their level of job security compared to 89 percent surveyed in 2000.
When the Rodda Act was signed into law in 1975, the days of meet and beg bargaining were over. Collective bargaining was a coming of age for CSEA, then 70,000 strong. It gave the union power to negotiate at the bargaining table and to represent employees under the full strength of the new labor laws.
Today, CSEA employs nearly 300 full-time staff members to help its member-run chapters negotiate top-notch contracts with good pay and benefits for classified employees.
School funding dries up
For decades, California had enjoyed full funding for its schools and unsurpassed educational programs. Then in 1978, California voters approved Proposition 13 in an ill-fated attempt to cut property taxes. The state's public school system and its employees would never be the same.
By 1995, California plummeted from fifth in the country to 40th in school spending. Classified employees, who had finally gotten a piece of the pie through collective bargaining, found that there just wasn't much to go around. Many school programs such as music, art and athletics simply vanished, and classified employees who worked in those programs lost their jobs or were shuffled around. By the late 1980s, schools, parents and even some of the voters who passed Prop.13, were tired of the funding shortfalls.
The California Teachers Association (CTA), along with CSEA and other members of the education community, led the charge for a second ballot initiative. In 1988, Prop. 98 was passed to guarantee a minimum level of state funding for public schools. It is a complicated formula, and at times it has been manipulated by politicians, but it stabilized revenue for the state's public schools.
CSEA establishes safety guidelines
Safety has also been a long-standing priority among classified employees, but it had never been the large-scale concern that it became during the 1980s asbestos scare. Asbestos, a flaky white mineral, had been widely used in school construction between 1945 and 1973 on ceilings and as an insulator for pipes and boilers. Then in 1982, the Environmental Protection Agency ordered schools to be inspected for this cancer-causing substance.
An initial survey by the California Department of Education found that nearly half of the state's school facilities contained friable (easily crumbled) asbestos. It was found in gyms, hallways, boiler rooms and even classrooms. Maintenance workers, custodians and all school employees felt at risk.
CSEA successfully lobbied the Legislature to issue safety guidelines for school employees dealing with asbestos and its removal from school buildings. Since 1982, the State Department of Education has been required to distribute information to all districts regarding the safe handling, storage, clean-up and disposal of any toxic substances found on school grounds.
By 1984, cash-strapped districts had already spent $160 million on asbestos clean up, and they had only begun to address the problem. Though the worst sites have been taken care of, asbestos removal in our public schools continues to this day.
There was a time when it was all done by hand: attendance, bookkeeping, filing and everything else. By the 1980s and 1990s, new technology was here to stay. From custodians to secretaries, all classified employees were impacted by new technology.
For many classified employees, computers have given their job more variety. Computers have freed them from paper filing and given them the opportunity to interact with the students more often. Library technicians, instructional assistants and other classified professionals have stayed at the forefront of technology and are teaching students and co-workers how to use new technology. Whether they work in a huge district with state-of-the-art equipment or a small district with one computer lab, staying on top of technology has become essential to keeping our schools and colleges running smoothly.
CSEA joins the AFL-CIO
At CSEA's Annual Conference in 2001, delegates voted to become an independently chartered union of the AFL-CIO. Under the charter, CSEA retained its own constitution and bylaws, without outside control by the AFL-CIO. Members gained access to new discounts and benefits through the AFL-CIO's Union Plus program. More significantly, the independent charter gave CSEA members the power and clout that comes from combining CSEA's strength with that of more than 13 million other AFL-CIO members.
CSEA's success is a testament to its members
When a small group of school employees came together more than 75 years ago, they could have only dreamed about what life would be like for today?s classified professionals. Today, CSEA represents more than 220,000 workers, making it the largest classified employee union in the nation. The union's success in legislation, contract negotiations, retirement benefits, safety measures and employee rights is a testament to the hard work of all CSEA members.
However, for all of the changes that have occurred in our schools, our jobs and our union, some things never change. The overwhelming majority of CSEA members say that the most important part of their job is helping our students and children.