THE BLOG

Redefining and Rebuilding the Teachers' Union

10/20/2013 06:04 pm 18:04:07 | Updated Jan 23, 2014

In this post on reclaiming the conversation on education I offer strong views on the need to reorganize and redirect the American Federation of Teachers and the National Educational Association if these unions are to survive as a meaningful force for and ally of public education. I believe teachers and their unions have the potential to be agents for progressive educational and social change, but I am not sure that they will. It means taking risks that the organizations so far do not appear willing to make.

While I am a strong supporter of the right of workers in both the public and private sectors to organize labor unions, I am not an uncritical supporter. I am pro-public education, pro-teacher, pro-student, and pro-union, but while their interests often overlap, they do not always, and when they do not I favor the students. Sometimes union leadership or its official position is wrong and needs to be challenged. In the 2013 New York City mayoral primary, the teachers' union local, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), endorsed a candidate primarily because he appeared most likely to give teachers a retroactive pay raise. Other candidates were more hesitant because the teachers' last contract expired in 2008 and the cost to the city of a retroactive pay raise for teachers and other municipal workers could be in the billions of dollars.

While teachers and municipal workers deserve a raise, there certainly were more pressing educational issues in New York City and the nation facing students and parents -- and I argue facing teachers as well. They include school closings, charter schools, teacher assessments, and poor performance on new standardized tests, especially by black and latino students. My own experience with the leadership of the UFT during the past four decades is that while they consistently promote better education for students, especially when they are negotiating new contracts for teachers and want parental support, they inevitably drop all other demands in exchange for a pay raise, or in this case, for retroactive pay.

The two national teachers' unions should definitely have more influence on education in the United States, but they share some of the responsibility for their own futility. Part of the problem is their schizophrenic nature as both bread-and-butter unions and as professional organizations that advocate for just and effective educational policies.

The AFT has over 1.5 million members, including pre-K through 12th-grade teachers, paraprofessionals and other school-related personnel, higher education faculty and professional staff, federal, state and local government employees, and nurses and other healthcare professionals. In addition, the AFT represents nearly 250,000 retired members. The National Educational Association (NEA) is even larger. It has 3.2 million members including a half million teachers and other school personnel, 200,000 higher education employees, and almost 300,000 retirees. However, it is generally more involved in lobbying than in traditional union activities and does not actually represent that many teachers who have union recognition.

At the July 2013 American Federation of Teachers "TEACH Conference" in Washington D.C., national union President Randi Weingarten argued that the teachers' union was a force for both progressive and educational change. Among other actions, she spoke about how "the AFT and community partners from 12 cities throughout the country have organized a series of town hall community conversations aimed at developing 'bottom-up' solutions for struggling schools. In several cities, we're working together to fix, not close, struggling schools and to wrap services around those schools --because we know this helps kids and ensures that neighborhoods are not hollowed out." Among specific examples, she cited "Philadelphia, where, with our community partners, we are fighting draconian cuts that starve the schools to the point that they can no longer function."

Unfortunately, given the AFT's history, it will have to go a long way to establish its credibility as a trusted partner with parent and other educational activist groups. In Chicago, teachers went out on strike in September 2012 with a list of demands that included smaller class sizes, an elected school board, support for children exposed to violence and poverty, and more social workers, counselors, audio/visual and hearing technicians and school nurses. But in the end, the union settled for a three-year contract that included pay increases and a new evaluation system. A year later, the Chicago public school system, faced with a $1 billion deficit, closed 50 schools forcing thousands of students to travel to different schools in unfamiliar and sometimes unwelcoming neighborhoods. It was the largest school closing in United States history.

Karen Lewis, President of the Chicago Teachers Union called the school closings "a day of mourning for the children of Chicago. Their education has been hijacked by an unrepresentative, unelected corporate school board, acting at the behest of a mayor who has no vision for improving the education of our children." However, this time the teachers' union did not go on strike, it would have been a violation of their contract, although it did join parent groups that organized a series of protests.

Both the AFT and the NEA will also have difficulty convincing anyone they are serious about educational reform or worker rights when both organizations take millions of dollars from groups like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to champion the Gates school agenda. Between 2009 and 2013, the AFT accepted $11.3 million and the NEA over $7 million to promote common core standards and teacher assessment.

The AFT even describes the Gates Foundation as its partner. Meanwhile, Microsoft Corporation, founded by Bill Gates, is a notorious anti-union employer that out-sources high-tech jobs overseas and calls its American workers contractors rather than employees so they can be denied union collective bargaining rights.

One grievance that I have with the UFT and AFT is that there are serious undemocratic elements in the way they choose leaders and establish policies. Most of the UFT Executive Board and union officers are elected at-large. This means that all members of the union, including retirees, vote for each position. In the 2013 union election, more than half of the votes cast for union officers came from retirees, which meant the union leadership effectively represents them rather than working teachers. Since representation at the AFT national convention where national union elections take place is proportional and New York City is the largest local by far, union officials elected by New York City retirees control this national teachers' union. The role played by retirees tends to keeps entrenched leadership in power and contributes to more conservative union policies.

This leadership's commitment to the sanctity of union contracts at all costs and its unwillingness to challenge even unfair labor laws is a major reason for its weaknesses. It has become risk-adverse. In New York State, the teachers' union has what is known as agency shop status. The state government designates the union as the official bargaining agent for all teachers whether they chose to be union members or not and as the administrator of benefit programs. In a process called check-off it also requires school districts to deduct membership dues or service fees from union members and non-members. The teachers' union essentially becomes an agency of the state and union leaders its employees. Because the union loses these rights and potentially a lot of money if its members go on strike in violation of state law, there is tremendous pressure on union leadership to uphold the contract rather than to aggressively defend public education. The unions are so constrained by their unwillingness to strike that their largest function has become defending teachers who feel they were treated unfairly by supervisors, even when other teachers and union members in the building know the real problem is that the aggrieved teacher is not competent.

In places like New York City, where teachers have been without a new contract since 2008, the union leadership is afraid that any job action will cost its members established benefits. However, when municipalities or school districts know you will not strike as in New York City, or will only strike for limited wage and hour demands as in Chicago, they have all the leverage and non-union allies have no reason to trust unions will follow through on promises to support broader educational issues.

Whatever its benefit or lack of benefit for union members and their students, this system has worked well for union leaders. The Unity Caucus, a political party within the union, has controlled most union offices since the early 1960s. National AFT President Randi Weingarten earns over $400,000 a year with an expense account that brings her remuneration to almost $500,000. New York City local President earns about $250,000 a year with an even more generous expense account. National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel earns over $360,000. In 2011, his salary, stipends, and other paid expenses were $460,060.

There are other options to just obeying anti-strike anti-union laws. In the 1940s, during World War II, coal miners defied the federal government and went on strike because their families were mired in poverty and speed-up in the mines led to unsafe working conditions. In the 1960s the New York City local of the AFT went on strike twice in violation of the law and remained out even after union officials were sent to jail. In the 1970s I did some work with the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers Union (UE), a radical union that considered its contract at best a temporary truce between workers and employers, a tool to defend their rights, but nothing more. For example, in the union's national contract with GE, union locals retained the right to strike over grievances. More recently, in 2005, Transit Workers Local 100 closed the New York City subway and bus systems for five days in a strike that was illegal under the provisions of the Public Employees Fair Employment Act, also known as the Taylor law. There are penalties to breaking this and similar laws, but unless you are willing to break them, you are not really a labor union and cannot influence local, state, and national educational policy.

The kind of action I am calling for by teachers and their unions means developing a level of what used to be called working-class consciousness. In the post-Occupy Wall Street era it means supporting the 99 percent, even if the 1 percent offer you a sweetheart deal if you are willing to ally with them against other working people. It means recognizing the necessary relationship of teachers to the public and to parents. It means we rise together or we do not rise at all. It means the teachers' unions can compromise on their own wages and hours, but not on their commitment to students and their families. In Chicago it would have meant keeping community schools from being closed for budgetary reasons was more important than a small wage increase.

Going on strike in defiance of the law is not easy and should not be done without carefully laying the groundwork for union and community support as was done in Chicago before the 2012 teachers' strike which was led by an insurgent caucus within the union. It is a multi-year endeavor that includes organizing the membership and preparing teachers for potential lost wages and supporting political candidates in elections, including third party candidates, who will be sympathetic to unions and punishing the major parties when they do not deliver. It means lobbying for pro-union legislation, negotiating with an attitude, and providing financial and political support for allied parent and community groups. It means working with parents and community groups to define a good education and to make sure it is available to all children.

Before going on strike the union has to build a network of school-based leaders and ensure that new teachers and minority group members are encouraged to play leadership roles. A dynamic union must insist on collective decision-making. It must be a union where officers do not get paid more than members and local leadership is required to do the same job as every one else. To convince parents, especially minority parents, and community groups that the teachers' unions are serious, it means that the unions can no longer automatically defend incompetents and teachers who are disrespectful of the students and families in the communities where they work.

If teachers and their unions can do these things, I believe they can help revive the labor movement in the United States and transform education.

In a future post I will argue that similar changes must be made in the entire American labor movement if it is to be a force for progressive social change in the United States.