Joe Nuñez, Dean Vogel
Joe Nuñez is no stranger to CTA or the teaching profession. He’s spent his entire career either educating California’s children or fighting for their rights, as well as the rights of educators.
A California native born to farmworkers in the Central Coast, Nuñez stayed close to home to attend college, earn his master’s, and begin his teaching career. His union involvement started as a teacher leader and president of the Santa Maria High School District Faculty Association, where he led a successful monthlong strike in 1990 over pay and benefits.
Five years later he was hired by CTA. Since that time, Nuñez has served in many capacities, all with great success. His leadership in the 2005 and 2012 campaigns helped educators all across California maintain a strong voice in their profession. He is well respected by members, colleagues, lawmakers and governors.
Joe Nuñez was seven days on the job as the first Latino executive director of CTA when we sat down with him and CTA President Dean E. Vogel during CTA’s Summer Institute. Let’s listen in on their conversation…
Dean: If someone had told me when I started teaching that I would be the president of CTA, I would have laughed pretty hard. It wasn't something I ever imagined. Are you having a similar reaction?
Joe: I thought I’d be a teacher for the rest of my life, and in many ways I still am a teacher. CTA’s given me more opportunities than I ever dreamt to experience great teaching and to advocate for teachers. This job allows me to give back and to help achieve the goals of the organization.
You’re from a large family, and your parents worked in the fields of the central coast. How important was public education for you growing up?
Going to school was a refuge, and it certainly was more exciting than picking broccoli and strawberries! [Laughs.] I lived in Guadalupe, and I went to college because my teachers insisted. I returned to teach with my teachers. I called them Mr. Clement and Mr. Rose — they said no, my name is Stan or Dell!
Public education has been the pathway to the middle class for many of us. Look at the demographics — we teachers all have similar backgrounds, we teach close to where we grew up, we’re the first in our family to attend college.
I loved teaching. You see in their eyes when kids don’t get it, so I’d think of a better way to demonstrate the concept, some visual to show them. I was thrilled to see when the lights went on.
I was a high school agriculture teacher, so there was a lot of project-based learning, a lot of community outreach. I took students to national Future Farmers of America (FFA) conventions. We raised money working bingo, bake sales, reverse drawings, selling fireworks. I’ve done every fundraiser there is with kids and parents — parents who were thrilled their children were in our program.
How did you shift into union and association leadership?
In the 1960s district administrators recruited nationwide for teachers. Many came from Michigan, a unionized state, to the conservative agriculture town of Santa Maria. [Laughs.] Before I graduated high school in 1971, teachers were organizing to pass the Rodda Act. In fact, when teachers picketed, administrators “entertained” us for the day.
I started teaching in 1975, the year the Rodda Act was signed, and our teachers were engaged in organizing. There was a strike that year, too. So I was there for the first two strikes, and we remained active.
For me personally, within my first four years of teaching, self-interest reared its head in bargaining. Somebody had to represent us on the bargaining team. I’m grateful I drew the short straw to serve on the bargaining team. I ran for local president and lost the first election. I was elected the second time.
I was asked to present to the school board. I did — and I made the board president cry. I was stunned by her reaction and by the power of speaking in a public forum and getting that reaction. I thought she would say her piece, I would say what I would say, and then we’d move on. It was a huge lesson about the power of advocacy and the ability to move people. It was a seminal moment for me about my ability to communicate with people.
[Editor’s note: On Sept. 22, 1975, then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed CTA-sponsored Senate Bill 160 introduced by state Sen. Al Rodda, known as the Educational Employment Relations Act or the Rodda Act, to give California public school teachers collective bargaining rights. The legislation also established the Public Employment Relations Board (PERB).]
Fast forward, then, to all your union activities and CTA experiences. You’ve been running Governmental Relations since ’04, there was a huge legislative battle in ’05, the Schwarzenegger years, the victories with Propositions 30 and 32. What have you learned?
I learned to hone my arguments to be concise, because my first time as a lobbyist they’d say you have two minutes. I was a teacher, so I handed them a paper with our rationale on it and said I’ll be back, giving them the assignment to read the paper. I’d follow up a few days later, and they said, “Oh, you’re serious.” I’d follow up again, too. They learned I was serious about what I wanted them to do — just like a teacher.
My meetings with the last four governors and their chiefs of staff taught me to always be clear. We have to advocate clearly and precisely because they’re always looking for a way out. You can’t sugarcoat it.
But I’ve learned teachers have power when they come together. And when we join with coalitions and labor partners, we are unbeatable. This is exciting, hard work. It results in things like the passage of Prop. 30. I have nieces and nephews in public schools, and every time we do good work, I know they’re benefiting, because we’re funding their schools.
Advocacy is a thread throughout your career. What should members understand about CTA’s advocacy?
Our members want us to build and sustain positive learning environments for kids. To do that they need money, freedom to do their work, clear directions about expectations. Through Prop. 98 we’re vigilant about getting state money to schools, and we just did that through Prop. 30. We’re doing it through Common Core by advocating for flexibility in teaching the curriculum that educators told us they want to teach. Decisions made in Sacramento impact the classroom, and it’s through the political advocacy in Sacramento that teachers get resources to support their work in the classroom.
Teachers are busy. Our advocacy affects whether teachers can do their jobs or not do their jobs. We come together to work on their behalf because collectively we are stronger.
Again, I’ve seen CTA’s power of advocacy in various settings. Teachers have power. We exert our voice. That’s our job. That’s our role. I’m proud to be part of that.
While you’ve been “the” executive director for a week, you’ve been deeply involved for several months.
Yes, and everyone has been so gracious. I know no one does this alone.
Personally, my goal is to communicate regularly so we can all do this together. Members should know that you, Dean, represent the leadership and the elected members of CTA. Our leadership team makes the policy, sets the direction. I represent management and staff, and it’s our job to implement that vision. I don’t get to vote. I advise, certainly, when asked, and even when I’m not asked.
We have many opportunities and challenges ahead of us, starting with the Strategic Plan, which will be voted on by State Council in January.
This is about CTA members working together, from the local level to the state level. One member-recommended goal centers on defining an organizing culture. How do we come to a common understanding of that concept? How do we organize the implementation of the Common Core? The Local Control Funding Formula? Charter school organizing? How do we provide resources and opportunities? All these puzzle pieces will fit together nicely, and not without challenges — managing expectations, creating consensus, knowing some will be unhappy no matter what we do. My job, through the Strategic Plan, is to focus on what our members want and need, and to make sure resources are flowing to meet those needs.