FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Less Tenure at the Top?

by

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.

Steve Early is a resident of the San Francisco Bay Area currently working on a book about progressive municipal policy making there and elsewhere. He is the author, most recently, of Save Our Unions (Monthly Review Press, 2013). He can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

March 22, 2017
Paul Street
Russiagate and the Democratic Party are for Chumps
Russell Mokhiber
Single-Payer, the Progressive Caucus and the Cuban Revolution
Gavin Lewis
McCarthyite Anti-Semitism Smears and Racism at the Guardian/Observer
Kathy Kelly
Reality and the U.S.-Made Famine in Yemen
Kim C. Domenico
Ending Our Secret Alliance with Victimhood: Toward an Adult Politics
L. Ali Khan
Profiling Islamophobes
Calvin Priest
May Day: Seattle Educators Moving Closer to Strike
David Swanson
Jimmy Breslin on How to Impeach Trump
Dave Lindorff
There Won’t Be Another Jimmy Breslin
Jonathan Latham
The Meaning of Life
Robert Fisk
Martin McGuinness: From “Super-Terrorist” to Super Statesman
Steve Horn
Architect of Federal Fracking Loophole May Head Trump Environmental Council
Binoy Kampmark
Grief, Loss and Losing a Father
Jim Tull
Will the Poor Always Be With Us?
Jesse Jackson
Trump’s “March Massacre” Budget
Joe Emersberger
Rafael Correa and the Future of Ecuador: a Response to James McEnteer
March 21, 2017
Reshmi Dutt-Ballerstadt
On Being the “Right Kind of Brown”
Kenneth Surin
God, Guns, Gays, Gummint: the Career of Rep. Bad Bob Goodlatte
David Rosen
Popular Insurgencies: Reshaping the Political Landscape
Ryan LaMothe
The Totalitarian Strain in American Democracy
Eric Sommer
The House Intelligence Committee: Evidence Not Required
Mike Hastie
My Lai Massacre, 49 Years Later
James McEnteer
An Era Ends in Ecuador: Forward or Back?
Evan Jones
Beyond the Pale
Stansfield Smith
First Two Months in Power: Hitler vs. Trump
Dulce Morales
A Movement for ‘Sanctuary Campuses’ Takes Shape
Pepe Escobar
Could Great Wall of Iron become New Silk Roadblock?
Olivia Alperstein
Trump Could Start a Nuclear War, Right Now
David Macaray
Norwegians Are the Happiest People on Earth
March 20, 2017
Michael Schwalbe
Tears of Solidarity
Patrick Cockburn
Brexit, Nationalism and the Damage Done
Peter Stone Brown
Chuck Berry: the First Poet of Rock and Roll
Paul J. Ramsey
What Trump’s Travel Ban Reveals About His Long-Term Educational Policy
Norman Pollack
Two Nations: Skid Rows vs. Mar-a-Lago
Michael Brenner
The Great Game: Power Politics or Free Play?
Sam Gordon
Falling Rate of Profit, What about Some Alienation?
Jack Random
Sidetracked: Trump Diaries, Week 8
Julian Vigo
The Limits of Citizenship
James Graham
French Elections: a Guide for the Perplexed
Jeff Mackler
The Extraordinary Lynne Stewart
Lee Ballinger
Chuck Berry: “Up in the Morning and Off to School!”
Binoy Kampmark
Romancing Coal: The Adani Obsession
Nyla Ali Khan
Cultural Syncretism in Kashmir
Chad Nelson
The Politics of Animal Liberation: I Can’t Quit You Gary Francione
Weekend Edition
March 17, 2017
Friday - Sunday
John Reynolds
Israel and the A-Word
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail