Ken Zarifis, president of Education Austin, has dedicated himself to bettering public education in Austin — whether through dumpster diving to save books or organizing his local union’s members to take action.
And there’s a lot of organizing to do. Education Austin, which represents all non-administrative school employees in Austin ISD, is a merged local union, meaning its members are affiliated with both AFT and the National Education Association (NEA).
The local union was founded in 1999 after a potential national merger of AFT and NEA fell apart. The leaders in Austin continued with their talks and merged, consolidating their power.
We sat down with him recently to talk about his time as an educator, his strategy for leading his union, and the issues that Education Austin members are actively addressing today.
Ken is one of our many exceptional leaders and members across Texas. Check out our past leader spotlights to hear from more of them.
Tell us about yourself and how you ended up in education.
I grew up in Iowa in a very small, very white town. In high school I got into a lot of trouble and went down a path of alcoholism that almost killed me twice. I got arrested a couple of times. I had some teachers who were really there for me and always held me accountable with kindness. To this day, aside from my father, one of those teachers is the most impactful person in my life. I built my career on that.
I got sober at 28, went back to college when I was 30, and graduated. I had friends who said I should go to Austin, so I came and student-taught in 1997 to see what it was like. A position opened up at a middle school, so I moved out here in 1998. I taught eighth-grade language arts for 12 years. I loved it. I love literature, and I love writing. What I was good at and what I built my career on was building relationships with students.
For the next few years, 9/11 came, and I got really involved in the anti-war movement. I got arrested for protesting. As the early 2000s evolved, No Child Left Behind and the beginning of standardized testing came. As testing evolved, I got fed up with it. I figured out that 44 days out of my school year would be spent on testing, so when my campus said you’re going to have to give these tests, I told my principal, “I’m not doing it.” She said if I didn’t give the tests, she would fire me.
I remember walking out of the hallway and calling my union for the first time ever. They said, “We’ve got this, but let’s do it together. Let’s build a campaign and organize people.” While we were not very successful at eliminating testing, we were successful at building law at the statewide level that no more than 18 days could be for practice tests. It gave us a tool to be able to push back and limit testing. So that was my start. I began to speak to members on my campus, and it opened me up to what union work was.
There have also been a lot of moments with students over the years that were real pinnacles of my career that contributed to my own learning and changing as a teacher and as a human being — moments of learning how to really listen.
If you aren’t pissing off someone when you’re doing activist work, then you aren’t doing it right. What I learned from my students and what they learned from me, building power, making politicians uncomfortable, finding ways to make connections — these things are what I carry into my work.
We have to do this work within systems. As a leader, I take that experience in the classroom, in the Legislature, in our union, and bring them together and apply it to issues like immigration, Black Lives Matter, to the rights of classified employees who deserve their dignity and respect.
How did you get involved with your union? How did you grow into union leadership?
Someone came up and asked me to join ATPE in 1998, and I signed up. I started going to rallies for pay raises. I came back to campus, went to the leader of ATPE, and asked why they weren’t at the rally. They said they don’t do that kind of stuff, so I decided I couldn’t be with an organization that wasn’t going to fight for us. I dropped ATPE and joined Education Austin in 1999.
I first served on the board for two years. Then I became a member of the consultation team. A couple of years went by, and I was asked to run for vice president. I agreed to, I ran, and I won in May 2010.
In June of that year, I was diagnosed with cancer. I was devastated. I had to go tell people what the treatment would be — that it would be a long recovery. They said, “No, you’re our vice president and we’re in this together — we’re family.” I started treatment in July. It lasted for seven weeks, and it was really hard.
In the winter, I finally was able to return and began work. That’s when, in 2011, there ended up being a $5.4 billion cut to public education, which ultimately terminated 1,100 teachers in our district. One of the teachers in that pool was my wife, and it changed my perspective dramatically. It was devastating. It made it very personal and real for me, the devastation of a family and a human being. We lost a lot of members who decided to quit their jobs or were terminated.
At this point, I’m learning how to let go of things within our union and let the members lead the way. I’m taking a step back by being engaged in different ways. Our union is all of us, and I’m proud of that. I’m so gratified by it. Things are a long game. That’s what I’ve learned as a leader. We don’t have a magic wand that spreads union dust all over the district. The magic is our hard work because nothing gets given to us. I don’t believe in empowerment. You have to find it in yourself and go out and take it. It’s an active pursuit you have to be engaged with.
What issues is your union dealing with right now?
It’s been all about COVID-19 precautions and vaccinations for a while, but one of the biggest issues we have coming is negotiating for social justice issues. When you have people working for you so hard, you have to go all in.
We just recently found out that the district was going to give a $1,000 bonus to folks who had gone through this year, but $500 for part-time employees. Our part-time employees are mostly Black and brown, so we began to speak to board members, and we had two weeks maximum to organize. Employees organized, parents called in, and there were 50 people who signed up to speak at a school board meeting. We made a big connection with the community. People were saying that part-time employees deserved the full bonus. It was a really powerful moment. The district finally said they would give them the full bonus.
It takes building relationships to act quickly like this. We want to get away from the transactional view of unionism and instead create a relational unionism. We want to be learning from members what we need to stand for. Sometimes our issues are not their issues, but we have to listen.