Carolyn Doggett receives a commendation by Assembly Speaker John Pérez.
2012 was an amazing year for Carolyn Doggett. Her favorite team, the San Francisco Giants, had been written off by the media, only to come back and win the World Series. Her favorite people — school employees — had a come-from-behind win in the polls.
A parade in San Francisco was held for the Giants during the same week that the Yes and 30 and the No on 32 campaigns celebrated late into the night in Sacramento with Governor Jerry Brown and other top politicos. There was so much to celebrate that it took Doggett weeks to come down.
While Doggett can't take credit for the Giants’ sweeping victory, she can take a great deal of credit for the election victory. Some might say that the dogged determination of Doggett was pivotal in the miraculous come-from-behind victory last November, where voters trounced Prop. 32, an attack on unions and workers, and passed Prop. 30, which raised taxes for public schools.
Doggett may be unfamiliar to local educators; she is mostly behind the scenes supporting CTA’s leaders and overseeing staff. Her goal is to stay invisible. But we ignore that for now, because nobody championed harder for the rights of CTA members to earn a livable wage, have safe working conditions and be treated as professionals.
An advocate for teachers, counselors, librarians, speech pathologists, nurses and ESP staff, she lived out of a suitcase, traveling up and down the state, listening to the concerns of members to determine whether CTA could help them on a legal, legislative or local level. She has marched in picket lines, walked countless precincts, made hundreds of speeches and sacrificed her personal life for the sake of members and unionism.
In 2011, Carolyn Doggett had major back surgery and a hip replacement. Most people would have taken extensive sick leave to recuperate, or like many baseball players, gone on the “disabled list.”
But Doggett missed only a week of work after each surgery. She hobbled into CTA Headquarters with a cane and strong determination. With an election looming, which threatened the very future of organized labor, school funding and the voice of the middle class, there was little time to be sick. She worked round the clock on behalf of the campaign.
Now, after nearly two decades as CTA’s executive director, she can finally take some time for herself.
“I’ll miss this,” she says. “I still get emotional and teary-eyed. But I know in my heart it’s the right time to retire. If we hadn’t won the last election, it would have been much harder to walk away.”
An inspiring leader
“Hello, my name is Carolyn, and I’d like to talk to you about public education.”
Night after night during the 2012 campaign, those on the other end of the telephone had no idea they were talking to one of the most powerful labor leaders in the California, nor that just a few weeks before she’d had major back surgery.
“I never asked others to do something I wasn’t willing to do myself,” explains Doggett, who was found at the CTA headquarters phone bank most nights, swaying California’s voters one at a time. Her dedication inspired staffers and CTA members to make hundreds of thousands of calls.
In a previous election, when Sen. Pete McCloskey called CTA a “relentless political machine” for these strategies, Doggett took it as the highest form of a compliment.
As she reflects on her time at the helm, she is proudest of three accomplishments: the historic CTA campaign in 2005 to defeat several harmful initiatives that would have stripped teachers of their voice and due process; enactment of the Quality Education Investment Act in 2006 to help the schools of greatest need; and passing Prop. 30 last November, which increased funding for schools, averting drastic cuts in many districts.
“All the decisions and recommendations I made had one simple filter: How is it going to impact our members so they can do their job with the kids they teach? Teaching is such an important job, and it’s gotten increasingly harder. What teachers have to do now is thankless in so many ways. Yet they do it. So it’s easy to fight for teachers because they do such an incredible job.”
Always a rabble-rouser
The daughter of a logger and a schoolteacher knows firsthand how badly school employees can be treated without union protection.
When she applied for her first teaching job in Willits, Calif., at the local high school, she was told by an administrator, “I like your style, but I don’t want you around the big kids,” because she was so close to their age. She was told she could only work at the elementary school.
“Can you imagine being told that today?” she asks.
After a few years teaching in Willits, she visited Alaska and was offered a job at the high school in Anchorage. Despite being one of the youngest teachers, she was soon a site rep. When administrators sent a female teacher home for wearing pants instead of a dress, she encouraged all female teachers to show up in pants the next day.
“I was a rabble-rouser from very early on,” she confides. “I hope I was a role model for women.”
Her election as Anchorage Teachers Association president made news because of her gender; the headline in the local paper read: “Teachers Elect Woman.” During her first school board meeting, the president of the board told her to sit down, shut up and know her place.
“My knees were knocking. But I refused. I knew if I sat down, it was all over. So I kept standing.”
The journey to CTA
Doggett served twice as the president of the Alaska state NEA affiliate.
“It was a small state, and I learned to be a jack of all trades. If they needed a story, I wrote it. If they needed a speech, I wrote it. I was a registered lobbyist. I learned to do everything.”
In 1983 she was asked to work in San Francisco for a few weeks on a representation election to decide who would represent the educators in San Francisco — NEA or AFT. (Eventually both did in a merged local, the United Educator of San Francisco.) She was asked to stay on in San Francisco as a primary contact staff. In 1992 she was asked to join CTA’s management team.
She’d been in that job for a short when she received a phone call while attending a CTA conference informing her that Executive Director Ralph Flynn had died. Four days later, she was made executive director of the largest teachers union in the nation.
“I had a lot thrown at me. The first two years were challenging. People always said, ‘You’re no Ralph Flynn,’ and I would say, ‘No, I’m not.’ And I’m sure they will say to my successor, ‘You’re no Carolyn Doggett.’”
Retirement looks sweet
Doggett plans to spend summers in Wasilla, Alaska, the same town where Sarah Palin resides.
“No, I can’t see Russia from my house,” she laughs.
She plans to write a children’s book, spend time with her grandchildren, go to some Giants games, and finally have time to watch her husband play softball on his senior league in the Bay Area.
“I would also like to campaign for the first woman president someday soon,” Doggett muses. “Politics will always be my passion.”