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 and American Federation of Teachers — 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 taking the form of union democracy and reform struggles directed at incumbent leaders of state and local teachers organization. In several big city AFT branches and, most recently, the 110,000-member Massachusetts Teachers Association, opposition candidates have prevailed over union insiders in contested elections or came very close to winning.
As a result of this trend, proponents of charter schools, standardized testing, and teacher evaluations or pay based on test results may find themselves facing union negotiators who will be more militant, pro-active, and adept at rallying labor and community support.
In an upset victory last month, Barbara Madeloni, a rank-and-file leader of past testing-related protests, narrowly defeated MTA vice president Tim Sullivan for the presidency of the state’s largest labor organization. Madeloni’s reform caucus, called Educators for a Democratic Union, campaigned against controversial concessions made by MTA officials at the bargaining table and in legislative deal-making on Beacon Hill. “This is what we get,” Madeloni told 1,500 union delegates, “when we think power lies in personal access to the political elite — talking to them instead of mobilizing our membership.”
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 similar to Madeloni’s — took over the leadership of the 26,000-member Chicago Teachers Union. 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, an affiliate of the AFT 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 earlier this month, dissidents calling for more member engagement in the Seattle Education Association captured some local union executive board seats and nearly won the presidency.
In other cites like New York, where well-entrenched incumbents have remained in control, on-the-job activism is spreading. On May Day in Brooklyn, for example, 30 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.
The United Federation of Teachers 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.” But the UFT distanced itself 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 quality of 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 was a longtime union representative in New England and the author, most recently, of “Save Our Unions: Dispatches from a Movement in Distress.’’