Summer Musings Part II- Examining Our Union Structures


Last week I published my “Summer Musings Part I” post in which I posed a number of questions…

As I begin to wrap my head around the idea of the 2016-2017 school year, I do so with the question in mind of how do we raise teacher voice across New York State and beyond?  How do we empower our members at the very grassroots level?  How do we better engage our membership at the local, state, and national levels in a way that allows the members to drive the union agendas?  How do we create union cultures that encourage membership participation and what exactly does that participation look like?  How do we create times and places to facilitate discussions among the rank and file about what our unions are vs. what they actually should be?  How do we build more democratic unions and how do we overcome the obstacles that stand in the path of union democracy?  How do we turn our unions from passive unions or unions who simply mobilize around top down mandates into unions who have rank and file organizing at the very heart of their operation?

Like our many readers assuredly have (haha), I’ve been giving a good deal of thought to those questions over the past week or so.  Several of those questions tend to overlap with each other, so I am not necessarily going to write to each of those questions, but more share some of the thoughts that have been running through my head as I ponder those questions.

One concept that I keep coming back to is the concept of union structures.  It seems to me that the structures of our unions, in many cases, are prohibitive to what a union’s goals should be.

An empowered rank and file should ultimately be the result of of a membership who has had ample opportunity to engage with one another and with union leadership on what their shared values are and on what they expect from their union in regards to those values.  These opportunities for engagement should be frequent, whether they be causal or formal meetings, and should allow for deep and meaningful thought and discussion from all parties.  They should allow for participants to ponder the causes of issues that effect our schools and communities along with the long term implications of these issues or potential plans of action.  Meetings such as these, with no dominant voice, rather a respectful exchange of ideas from all participants, allow all members to have a greater role.  They allow the union to move forward as a collective, organized around a set of shared values, rather than as a leadership pulling a membership along.

In smaller locals like ours it is more common to witness these sorts of structures.  While the PJSTA certainly isn’t structured like my ideal scenario above, we do have regular building meetings where members are free to express concerns and share opinions.  Our leadership is in the schools every day, not only available to have personal and informal conversations with the membership, but in the trenches teaching with the same working conditions that our members are.  As a vice-president who is largely tasked with coordinating our local’s organizing endeavors, it is my personal goal to move us more in the direction of my stated ideal above.

Often where structures really start to become problematic are in larger locals, like the ones often found in cities, and in our statewide and national unions.  The larger the union, it seems, the more problematic we find the union structures.  Let’s take NYSUT, our statewide union, as an example.  I am wracking my brain and I can’t, for the life of me, recall a time that NYSUT asked me, as a rank and file member, what issues were important to me.  I can’t recall a time where they have provided space for in depth discussion between members on the issues that we face or on more philosophical ideas about how our union should function.  Virtually all of my interaction with NYSUT throughout my 14 years as a member has been different varieties of one-way communication.  I have received mandates from the leadership on what I should fax or email, what I should say to my elected officials, who I should vote for, or scripts I should read to others on the phone.  This is literally the opposite of empowering.  Rather it sends the message to me as a member that my ideas and opinions are inconsequential and that engaging me isn’t important.  I simply exist as a tool to do the bidding of our leadership.

In January I emailed NYSUT President Karen Magee with questions along these lines and I was basically told it was none of my business.  There have been very few times in my career when a NYSUT officer has visited our local and when they have it was never to engage the membership, only to talk at them and then usually ask for an increase in VOTE-COPE contributions.

When I attend the RA as a delegate most of the discussion centers around resolutions brought to the floor.  Precious little debate takes place before a Unity Caucus member typically calls the question to shut down discussion and then the motion is voted on.  If you are not first on line (out of more than 2,000 delegates) at a microphone to speak, it usually means you don’t get to speak.  In general the resolutions are fairly meaningless to the general membership anyway (Quick, count how many NYSUT resolutions have impacted you in the classroom?  I bet you can count them on one hand!)  The rest of the RA typically consists of the VOTE-COPE guy asking us to give more VOTE-COPE, and maybe a candidate our leadership is pushing who talks at us (this year it was Hillary Clinton).

I can go on and on about the issues I have with NYSUT, but I don’t think that’s necessary.  Clearly NYSUT is very top down in nature and it’s entire structure stifles discussion about the issues that effect us and does more to encourage members to disengage than it does to empower them.  The same can be said about the AFT on the national level.

What I find to be most appalling is that these sorts of structures typically tend to be by design.  I don’t believe that the leaders of NYSUT and the AFT are necessarily interested in hearing from the membership.  I don’t believe that they are actively seeking out ways to empower and engage the rank and file.  I don’t think that they have any interest in establishing rules that make our unions more democratic.  To do any of these things would be to put themselves and the power that they have accrued at risk.  It would endanger their seat at the table.  To be honest, there are not many people who would want to give up salaries of hundreds of thousands of dollars, expense accounts, double pensions, and seats at national conventions.  The bigger problem is the structures that are put in place allowing these leaders to run our unions as they do for an indefinite period of time without having to answer to the membership in a meaningful way.  When you allow those in power to make the rules and create the structures, these are the sorts of situations you find yourself in.

There are no easy solutions to this problem and there are no shortcuts.  Electing new leadership (virtually impossible in NYSUT because of the elections rigged in favor of whomever Unity Caucus endorses) isn’t a real solution due to the likelihood of new leaders falling into the same traps as previous ones due to the fact that they are operating within the same flawed structure.  Any structure that relies upon humans resisting the temptation to be bought off is likely doomed to fail.

In June I was sitting in a meeting with members of other locals and the topic of our flawed leadership came up.  How they haven’t done enough to help us in regards to certain issues. While I agree to an extent, I don’t find the individual leaders to be the problem.  It isn’t Karen Magee, Andy Pallotta, or Mike Mulgrew.  It’s the union structure that has allowed it to happen.  You can plug in virtually anyone and get very similar results.  Which is why the answer is not changing leadership.

I firmly believe that the answer to the problem of our union structures begins in our schools at the worksite.  It starts with building new structures within our buildings and locals that are more democratic in nature and that empower our membership.  When we create organizing unions that emphasize democracy and teacher empowerment we create an extremely powerful union and the leadership ultimately doesn’t matter.  It isn’t easy and it isn’t glamorous and it is often tedious.  But it is the most important work that a union can do.  If this sort of work were done extensively statewide, our statewide union would ultimately change.

So join me this year in working to reshape your unions.  We’ll be working on ways to better engage members in deeper discussions, identify shared values, and empower members.  Feel free, as always, to share your ideas with us!

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