Let’s End Top Down Unionism

I have to thank my friend Norm Scott over at Ed Notes Online for the piece he recently wrote on the demise of the UFT’s blog Edwize.  I’ll admit that I had never even heard of Edwize.  But then again I don’t typically spend time reading Unity Caucus propaganda, so maybe that explains it.

Anyways, tucked into Norm’s piece was a real gem that he had from Mike Antonucci’s Intercepts blog

Back in 2002, three NEA staffers wrote an article for the Journal of Labor Research on the union’s experiments in cyberspace. They concluded, “With modern cyber software, in short, content creation can be decentralized and democratized. Members can be empowered. But first, of course, members need to be trusted. A top-down union, comfortable with command-and-control internal information-sharing processes, might be unnerved by this prospect. A top-down union, uncomfortable with anything but command-and-control, will likely never succeed in cyberspace.”

At the time, I felt this was an encouraging view, but didn’t go far enough.

Sigh. All NEA can think about is how cyberspace will help it get members to do something. Completely unexamined (perhaps even unimagined) is what if cyberspace helps members to get NEA to do something? What if members share internal information not previously filtered through the communications staff? What if they decide to support or reject legislation not included in the union’s legislative program? What if they become unhappy meeting once a year in a group of 9,000 and would prefer a different arrangement? A membership truly engaged in NEA’s workings might make it a stronger union, but it would be a fundamentally different union from the one that exists now, and in ways utterly unpredictable to those who hope to harness that power.

Even 13 years later we haven’t reached that point, but we’re closer to it than we have ever been.

That passage gets to the heart of what I think is the biggest problem with our unions and that is the top down nature of them in which our leaders insist on.  “Command-and-control” as Antonucci calls it.  For as long as I have been a teacher (14 years) I have seen the leadership of NYSUT/AFT/NEA decide on what we are supporting, what positions to take, what needs to be done and then simply command the membership to pledge support to those positions.  To some extent this also happens in individual locals, though I think that is less the case in smaller locals.  Like most people in power, union leaders often act with their own best interests in mind, with the goal being to retain power over all else.

The decentralizing and democratizing of unions that those NEA staffers saw as a possibility in 2002 has started to take place in many unions across the country, only it hasn’t been with the consent of the union leadership, but more as a thorn in the leadership’s side.  Rank and file members are found utilizing social media to organize everyday in support of causes that their unions haven’t supported.  Opt-out campaigns are the perfect example of this.  Classroom teachers were organizing around that long before NYSUT did.  It’s why every day classroom teachers like Beth Dimino, Jia Lee, Kevin Glynn, and dozens of others are viewed as the real teacher leaders while the likes of Andy Pallotta, Mike Mulgrew, and Randi Weingarten are looked upon with disdain.

In 2014, when NYSUT refused to oppose Governor Cuomo, the PJSTA harnessed the power of social media to endorse and support his primary challenger Zephyr Teachout.  Teachout was a guest at the PJSTA Conference Day and held a press conference at Comsewogue High School with hundreds of our members at her backs.  We recorded her speech and spread it via YouTube so that teachers across the state could hear her pro-public education stance, giving her a chance to illustrate just how different she was than the incumbent Cuomo.  While falling short, Teachout reached nearly 35% of the primary voters and left us wondering what would have happened if our parent unions had worked for her in the ways that we had.

In other places around the country caucuses favoring a more democratic brand of unionism have either won control of their unions (Chicago, LA) or are mounting serious challenges (Philadelphia).  Of course right here in New York, the MORE Caucus is mounting a growing threat to Unity Caucus at the UFT level and STCaucus is becoming a force to be reckoned with inside of NYSUT.

One thing that I have often claimed and believe deeply is that union leadership of UFT/NYSUT/AFT value power above all else and will stop at nothing to retain that power.  This is even more noticeable with the Friedrichs threat looming.  At a time when unions should be doing more than ever to empower their members and allow the voice of the rank and file to drive their agendas, our leadership’s strategy has been to ask for more VOTE-COPE money all while attacking classroom teachers, issuing and early endorsement for former WalMart board member Hillary Clinton, cavort with our enemies in support of #TeachStrong, and  celebrate “momentous” victories that aren’t actual victories.

There is a member driven movement for a more democratic union that is coming.  How much it transforms our union remains to be seen, but the more rank and file teachers get informed, become engaged, and take back their unions the better off our profession, our students, and our communities will be.

If you haven’t already registered for the “Restoring Power to the Teacher” conference hosted by STCaucus do so right now!  Be sure to bring a friend you work with or one from another district.  this is your opportunity to have your voice heard and move your union in the direction you want it to go!

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