A Revitalized Teacher Union Movement

Reflections from the field

By Bob Peterson
Rethinking Schools / Winter 2014/2015

If we don’t transform teacher unions now, our schools, our profession, and our democracy—what’s left of it—will likely be destroyed. I know. I am from Wisconsin, the home of Scott Walker and Paul Ryan.

In 2011, in the wake of the largest workers uprising in recent U.S. history, I was elected president of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association (MTEA). Unfortunately, that spring uprising, although massive and inspirational, was not strong enough to stop Gov. Walker from enacting the most draconian anti-public sector labor law in the nation.

That law, known as Act 10, received support from the Koch brothers and a cabal of national right-wing funders and organizations. It was imposed on all public sector workers except the police and firefighter unions that endorsed Walker and whose members are predominantly white and male.

Act 10 took away virtually all collective bargaining rights, including the right to arbitration. It left intact only the right to bargain base-wage increases up to the cost of living. The new law prohibited “agency shops,” in which all employees of a bargaining unit pay union dues. It also prohibited payroll deduction of dues. It imposed an unprecedented annual recertification requirement on public sector unions, requiring a 51 percent (not 50 percent plus one) vote of all eligible employees, counting anyone who does not vote as a “no.” Using those criteria, Walker would never have been elected.

Immediately following Act 10, Walker and the Republican-dominated state legislature made the largest cuts to public education of any state in the nation and gerrymandered state legislative districts to privilege conservative, white-populated areas of the state.

Having decimated labor law and defunded public education, Walker proceeded to expand statewide the private school voucher program that has wreaked havoc on Milwaukee, and enacted one of the nation’s most generous income tax deductions for private school tuition.

Under these conditions, public sector union membership has plummeted, staff has been reduced, and resources to lobby, organize, and influence elections have shrunk.

People familiar with Wisconsin’s progressive history—in 1959, for example, we were the first state to legalize collective bargaining for public sector workers—find these events startling. And they should. If it happened in Wisconsin, it could happen anywhere.

And it has. In New Orleans, following Katrina, unionized teachers were fired and the entire system charterized. Following Wisconsin’s lead, Tennessee abolished the right for teachers to bargain collectively. In Philadelphia, the School Reform Commission unilaterally canceled its expired contract with the teacher union. In city after city, privately run charter schools are dominating the education landscape.

Fortunately, teacher union activists across the country are revitalizing their unions and standing up to these relentless attacks. And this growing transformation of the teachers’ union movement may well be the most important force in our nation to defend and improve public schools and, in so doing, defend and improve our communities and what’s left of our democratic institutions.

The revitalization builds on the strengths of traditional “bread and butter” unionism. But it recognizes that our future depends on redefining unionism from a narrow trade union model, focused almost exclusively on protecting union members, to a broader vision that sees the future of unionized workers tied directly to the interests of the entire working class and the communities, particularly communities of color, in which we live and work.

This is a sea change for teacher unions (and other unions, too). But it’s not an easy one to make. It requires confronting racist attitudes and past practices that have marginalized people of color both inside and outside unions. It also means overcoming old habits and stagnant organizational structures that weigh down efforts to expand internal democracy and member engagement.
From Bread and Butter to Social Justice

The MTEA is a member of the National Education Association (NEA), which has a long history of being staff-dominated. In some locals, elected presidents were (and still are) just figureheads. Allan West, a national NEA staff member, memorialized this staff-run union approach in a widely distributed 1965 speech. According to West, the executive director was the one who should be the public spokesperson, develop agendas for elected executive boards, and direct most of the union’s affairs. This power structure was written into our local’s constitution, and it had profound consequences. When a member of a progressive rank-and-file caucus in Milwaukee was elected president in 1991, for example, it took him six months just to get a key to the office. For nearly a decade we pushed for a full-time release president, a proposal resisted by most professional staff.

Meanwhile, by the late 1980s and into the ’90s, teacher activists in Milwaukee were connecting with other rank-and-file teacher union activists through Rethinking Schools and the newly formed National Coalition of Education Activists (NCEA). In 1994, 29 teachers’ union activists from both the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) met at the Portland, Oregon, NCEA conference and issued a statement: “Social Justice Unionism: A Working Draft” (see sidebar, p. 18).

Social justice unionism is an organizing model that calls for a radical boost in internal union democracy and increased member participation. This contrasts to a business model that is so dependent on staff providing services that it disempowers members and concentrates power in the hands of a small group of elected leaders and/or paid staff. An organizing model, while still providing services to members, focuses on building union power at the school level in alliance with parents, community groups, and other social movements.

Three components of social justice unionism are like the legs of a stool. Unions need all three to be balanced and strong:

    We organize around bread and butter issues.

    We organize around teaching and learning issues to reclaim our profession and our classrooms.

    We organize for social justice in our community and in our curriculum.

Unfortunately, few public sector unions in Wisconsin adopted this model of unionism. As long as we had an agency shop and could protect our members’ compensation and benefits, most members were happy. (Continued)

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