Some interesting news stories involving education and, by extension, teacher unions have broken recently. After a lot of contemplation a few things regarding our unions have really come to the forefront of my thoughts. Let’s get to the issues at hand first.
First, we recently learned that NYSED Commissioner MaryEllen Elia was using Governor Cuomo’s new receivership law, enacted by the legislature last spring, to essentially toss aside the collective bargaining agreement between the Buffalo School District and the Buffalo Teachers Federation. Changes to the working conditions of the teachers in the receivership schools can be drastically altered simply in the name of “improving our schools” even if there is no real evidence that such changes would improve the school. Ultimately the receivership process can lead to a receiver being appointed by the state. As described by Jessica Bakeman in Politico New York this past spring, such receiver could…
“replace teachers and administrators’ and ‘abolish the positions of all members of the teaching and administrative and supervisory staff assigned to the failing or persistently failing school and terminate the employment of any building principal assigned to such a school, and require such staff members to reapply for their positions in the school if they so choose.”
Naturally schools that fall into receivership are evaluated by rigged standardized test scores. This action proves how farcical Cuomo’s Common Core Task Force is as the state is pushing forward with the destruction of public education all while pretending to listen to the concerns of citizens.
Shortly after hearing about the Buffalo receivership debacle, I began reading about #TeachStrong. As described by Peter Greene on his Curmudgucation blog…
Sigh. Well, let’s start with the assumption that teaching is in trouble. Teachers, apparently, need to “modernized and elevated.” And we are also fans of having an excellent teacher in each classroom. And we have nine-step program for getting it done.
(1) Recruit more diverse candidates for (2) more strenuous preparation. (3) Make it harder to get a license, but (4) pay more and (5) provide support in residency programs. (6) Keep tenure, but make it a meaningful signal of professional accomplishment (i.e. harder to get). (7) Give teachers more time and tools (so, what? a twenty-five hour day and an extra hand?) (8) Better PD (please, now you’re just making shit up). (9) Career pathways.
So, mostly the same old stuff. Make life harder for teachers in concrete ways (licensure, tenure) but try to offset it in vague ways (more time, and tools, and PD). And as always– absolutely nothing about giving teachers a strong voice in the direction of their profession.
No, the promise here is that we will ask more of you and do more to you.
And yet there are some odd features here. For instance, much of this is not exactly in tune with the TFA five-weeks, no-real-license plan. But in her WaPo piece, Lyndsey Layton reports that TFA basically has no intention of changing what they do, they just thought this seemed like a cool initiative to join. Really? Why would they sign on to this if they didn’t support the stated goals? Hmmm…
So what’s really going on here? I have a thought, and I’ll go ahead and type it out now. If I’m wrong, we can all make fun of me later.
Let’s look at the clues.
The initiative is led by CAP, a thinky tank that has also served as a holding pen for Clinton staffers since Bill stepped out of the White House. Carmel Martin, who has so far been the point person on this for CAP, has served in both Clinton and Obama administrations.
The list has many reformster groups– but not all. Who’s missing? Well, Campbell Brown, the Fordham Foundation, Jeb Bush’s FEE folks. You know– the conservative/GOP wing.
What does the group say it’s up to? Per Layton:
Martin, of the Center for American Progress, said the campaign will include events in early presidential primary states and important swing states, as well as Twitter town halls, online events and social media outreach. The think tank expects to spend $1 million, she said.
#TeachStrong says it wants to influence policy discussions through the primary and election season. I hereby predict that one candidate is going to be heavily influenced by this initiative and is going to stand up for this important teacher-supporting thing. I hereby predict that #TeachStrong is an organization created to help guard and support Hillary Clinton’s education flank in the run-up to 2016.
I think we’re looking at the eventual education plank of HRC’s platform.
Unsurprisingly, two of the forty organizations involved with this destruction of our profession are our national unions, the AFT and the NEA. That’s correct, I am no longer surprised when they stick the knife in the back of their dues paying members by partnering with the reformy groups who have sought to create the narrative of a public education crisis that they can sell you the answer to. They have a long track record of this.
So we have two major issues here, seemingly not connected, yet still rooted in a common problem, the lack of real union organizing from our parent unions. Let’s look at the issue in Buffalo first. A strong collective bargaining agreement, featuring victories won by generations of members over decades of work, is the document that provides a living for professional educators, along with the working conditions members value that also enhance student learning. To have the commissioner trample all over that agreement to instill whatever the reformists want is a blow the heart of the union and one that calls for an immediate and forceful response. That’s certainly the type of thing unions should be good at, right? However the Buffalo Teachers Federation President Phil Rumore simply responded that the BTF might sue. NYSUT President Karen Magee’s response was that they’d look at different options. Tepid responses at best.
The problem with the situation in Buffalo, regarding the lack of decisive union action, is the same problem that leads to our national unions supporting #TeachStrong in partnership with those who seek to destroy us. That problem is that the difficult and time consuming work of organizing that needs to have been done over a long period of time in order to effectively carry out such actions that will lead to victory has not been done. It certainly hasn’t been done by NYSUT and if Rumore’s only idea is to sue, it likely hasn’t been done there either. It has become common place in recent years for me to see teachers on social media calling for a statewide strike over the ed reform issues that have been foisted upon us. While I appreciate the sentiment and would go along with such militant action if possible, it really isn’t feasible. There simply has not been any organizing at the rank and file level to pull of any sort of statewide teacher movements. It’s not just the Revive NYSUT officers who currently inhabit the statewide officer positions either. As long as I have been a NYSUT member (14 years), through three presidents, there has been no organizing done by the statewide union. Certainly not to the level of being able to pull off mass labor actions across the state. Any organizing that has been done has taken place at the local union level or by parents. The real organizing I am mentioning is tough work. It involves lots of real back and forth conversation with members and with community members. It involves reflective practice in how we operate as unionists, and it calls for a true democratic governance within our unions that allows the members of an informed and engaged rank and file to truly drive the agenda of the union’s leadership. That work is never done by our parent unions.
While a failure to organize rank and file members should be a huge red flag that your union is failing you, the reason why it is likely happening within NYSUT, the AFT, and the NEA is even more galling. In my opinion the lack of organizing is by design. The simple fact of the matter is that an organized, informed, and engaged rank and file is a threat to our leadership. As long as membership is oblivious to the fact that leadership is collaborating with those seeking to harm us, such as the AFT and NEA’s decision to support #TeachStrong, they will never do the work that needs to be done to replace leadership. Without a revolt from the rank and file our “leaders” can sit safely inside their offices, far removed from the trenches that is the inside of a classroom, and collect their half a million dollar compensation packages and accrue their double pensions.
In many ways the large unions are like virtually any other organizational structure where those in power simply want to keep the power to themselves. An informed electorate is always a threat to them. It’s why the UFT leadership never concerns themselves with the fact that less than 20% of it’s members vote in union elections. It’s why Unity Caucus, at the state level, shut down a constitutional amendment at last spring’s NYSUT RA that would have allowed regional voting so that more than 30% of locals could actually cast their votes in NYSUT elections.
To those in power, whether they be in our parent unions, our government, or elsewhere, democracy is nothing but a buzzword. It sounds good to talk about, but in actual practice they risk too much power to want it employed among those they hold power over. The leaders of the AFT, the NEA, and NYSUT simply don’t care about classroom teachers. They want the cozy gigs they have now, the big salaries that come with it, and the continued ability to be able to rub elbows with “important people” like Andrew Cuomo and Hillary Clinton. That’s why we, when we are in desperate need of mass labor action, are stuck being encouraged to make Nae Nae videos instead.
Having said all that, the structure for change does in fact exist. The blueprint for such change can be seen in Chicago and Seattle where rank and file movements have pushed leadership into drastic labor actions that have given them hard won victories. The Chicago Teachers Union recently held a mock strike vote in preparation for what may prove to be a lengthy strike this winter. 95% of their membership participated in that vote and 97% of those voting voted that they would authorize a strike. A similarly high turnout approved the Seattle Educators Association’s strike in September. You simply don’t get all members on the same page with votes to authorize a strike unless you have undertaken lengthy, in depth organizing campaigns that have both informed membership and then brought their voice to the forefront. Those are simply astounding numbers. The key to the organizing within both locals has been the presence of a rank and file lead, social justice unionism caucus. In Chicago that would be CORE (Caucus of Rank and file Educators) and in Seattle that would be the SEE Caucus (Social Equality Educators). Both caucuses were in existence for several years, lead by rank and file membership and hyper focused on organizing before they went about the task of organizing a drastic action such as a strike.
While the MORE Caucus brings a similar brand of unionism within the UFT, such an organization has not really ever existed within NYSUT. The one hope for change lies with the Stronger Together Caucus which, at the very least, provides an existing structure to work within. STCaucus, which formed last year, certainly is willing to oppose NYSUT leadership in an effort to represent what they believe is the voice of the classroom teacher, as they have shown throughout the past few months. While that is encouraging in and of itself, the caucus has yet to do much organizing of the general membership. There likely are a variety of factors behind that. What remains to be seen is whether or not they intend to do the organizing necessary to facilitate a rank and file driven movement and whether or not they are receptive to the being steered by the voice of the membership.
There are scheduled to be some membership meetings and conferences of the caucus in the next few months. I highly recommend teachers across New York State reach out to the caucus to see when those will be held and then make sure you are in attendance. The direction the caucus leadership takes from there should be pretty telling. Hopefully they are up to the task because the clock is ticking and our profession is approaching the edge of the cliff.