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A Restive Rank-and-File Seeks New Teacher Union Leadership

Less Tenure at the Top?

by STEVE EARLY

It’s a hard time to be the leader of any union, but those elected by teachers are really on the firing line.

Corporate-backed education reformers, and their political allies want to weaken the collective voice of public school educators. Teacher union bargaining rights or contract protections have come under attack throughout the country. The two labor organizations most directly affected—the National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT)—have tried but failed to appease their political foes, leaving many of their own members questioning the effectiveness of union advocacy and representation.

That growing concern is now fueling union reform struggles within many state and local teachers’ organizations. In several big city branches of the AFT and the 110,000-member Massachusetts affiliate of the NEA, rank-and-file candidates have recently defeated incumbent officials or just narrowly lost contested elections for local leadership positions.

As a result of this trend, school boards and mayors pushing charter schools, standardized curriculum and testing, or teacher evaluations and pay based on test results will soon face stiffer opposition to their plans. The new breed of activists now getting elected realize that union survival and success depends on being more militant, democratic, and engaged with the community.

In May election upset, Barbara Madeloni, an organizer of past teacher protests against standardized testing in the Bay State, became president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA). Running as part of caucus called Educators for a Democratic Union, Madeloni narrowly defeated MTA vice-president Tim Sullivan, who was once considered a shoe-in for the top job. Madeloni and her reform slate campaigned against controversial concessions on seniority rights made two years ago by union lobbyists in meetings with Democratic state legislators and Stand For Children, a business-backed “education reform” group.

“This is what we get,” Madeloni told 1,500 MTA delegates last month, “when we think power lies in personal access to the political elite—talking to them instead of mobilizing our membership. When Stand For Children comes back for the next fight or political allies come after our pensions, do we want to once again cut an inside deal and declare, ‘It could have been worse?’”

The Chicago Model

The union revitalization model championed by MTA reformers has been on display in Chicago since 2010. That’s when CORE—the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators, a group which inspired Madeloni’s —took over the leadership of the 26,000-member Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). After the election of new president Karen Lewis, an African-American graduate of Dartmouth, CTU began to strengthen its internal structures to prepare for a showdown with the city’s hard-nosed mayor, Rahm Emanuel, two years ago.

CTU activists did extensive outreach to public school parents and low-income communities to neutralize, as much as possible, anti-teacher sentiment whipped up by City Hall. The union positioned itself as Chicago’s leading defender of quality public education, smaller class sizes, and neighborhood schools threatened with closing. During a 9-day work stoppage, many residents of the city reciprocated by backing the striking teachers, making it difficult for Emanuel to demonize and isolate them, as planned. Although school closings and teacher lay-offs continue in Chicago, the union’s resistance to givebacks—and multi-faceted contract campaign—resonated among embattled educators everywhere

Since that 2012 strike, like-minded reformers have followed the Chicago teachers’ game plan in citywide contract negotiations in Portland, Oregon and St. Paul, Minnesota. In March, rank-and-file challengers swept all the top positions in the United Teachers of Los Angeles, a joint affiliate of the AFT and NEA even bigger than the CTU. They campaigned as part of a “Union Power” slate critical of a controversial new teacher evaluation plan negotiated by the incumbents. In elections last month, dissidents calling for more member engagement in the Seattle Education Association captured half its executive board seats and nearly won the presidency. The insurgent slate there, Social Equality Educators, was headed by another iconic resister of standardized testing, high school teacher Jesse Hagopian.

The vote results and high turnout in Seattle demonstrated “widespread support for SEE’s strategy for both defending the teaching profession and fighting for fully funded and equitable public schools,” argues Lee Sustar, author a new book on teacher unionism called Striking Back in Chicago (Haymarket, 2014) “It was SEE activists who helped initiated and lead the successful boycott of the MAP test campaign of 2013, which, in partnership, with parents and community allies, gave a boost to the anti-testing movement around the U.S.”

According to Sustar, “after two decades of corporate school reform, privatization, degradation of educators and obsessive testing of students, there’s now an emerging alternative to the AFT and NEA leadership’s strategy of collaboration at any costs.” Among those actively assisting this network of teacher union reformers is Labor Notes, which has published its own recent guide for the restive rank-and-file called How to Jump Start Your Union.

Not Union-Sponsored

In other cites like New York, where a new union contract was just ratified, well-entrenched incumbents remain in control for now. But activism on-the-job is spreading. On May Day in Brooklyn, for example, thirty high school faculty members publicly announced their refusal to administer a performance assessment exam in “English language arts” because it disadvantages students hailing, in their school, from 30 different countries. The parents of more than half the students also opted out of the testing process, because of similar concerns. Some of the initiators of this boycott belong to the Movement of Rank-and-File Educators, a caucus critical of the union leadership.

As labor journalist Sarah Jaffe reported, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) offered sympathy for “the victims of a testing culture that has focused far too much attention on test prep and too little on strategies that will actually lead to student learning.” At the same time, however, UFT officials distanced themselves from the protest because it was “not a union-sponsored event.”

This kind of tepid response isn’t cutting it with educators who object to their assigned role as “test technicians” in a public school race to the bottom. By linking workplace concerns to the cause of quality public education, the new teacher union dissidents are trying to turn the tide by first taking back their own unions. If those at the top, locally or nationally, don’t get the message, they may find their own tenure at risk.

Steve Early is a labor journalist, lawyer, and retired national staff member of the Communications Workers of America. He is the author, most recently, of Save Our Unions: Dispatches From A Movement in Distress, forthcoming from Monthly Review Press in November. He can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com.