A revitalized teacher union movement is bubbling up in the midst of relentless attacks on public schools and the teaching profession. Over the next several years this new movement may well be the most important force to defend and improve public schools, and in so doing, defend our communities and our democracy.
The most recent indication of this fresh upsurge was the union election in Los Angeles. Union Power, an activist caucus, won leadership of the United Teachers of Los Angeles, the second-largest teacher local in the country. The Union Power slate, headed by president-elect Alex Caputo-Pearl, has an organizing vision for their union. They have worked with parents fighting school cuts and recognize the importance of teacher-community alliances. [Editors' note: Recently, the Massachusetts Teachers Association elected a progressive candidate as president. See the story here.]
In two other cities -Portland, Ore., and St. Paul, Minn., - successful contract struggles also reflect a revitalized teacher union movement. In both cities the unions put forth a vision of "the schools our children deserve" patterned after a document by the Chicago Teachers Union. They worked closely with parents, students, and community members to win contract demands that were of concern to all groups. The joint educator-community mobilizations were key factors in forcing the local school districts to settle the contracts before a strike.
The St. Paul Federation of Teachers involved parents and community members in formulating their contract proposals, which emphasized lower class size, less time spent on test prep and testing, and increased early childhood services. Working with parents they staged a massive "walk-in" to schools when 2,500 people-educators, parents, community members and students-walked into school in unison in a show of solidarity.
The Portland Association of Teachers organized support from religious leaders, the NAACP, and the Portland Student Union. They conducted petition campaigns and generated public support. Ultimately the school board agreed to many of the PAT's proposals, including hiring 5 percent more teachers to reduce class size, and a substantive increase in planning time for elementary teachers.
Social justice unionism
For years a small but growing number of union activists, myself included, have promoted a vision of social justice teacher unionism that builds on the lessons of the past, but pushes the envelope well beyond traditional unionism. We promote an organizing model with a strong dose of internal union democracy and increased member participation. This contrasts to a business model that views union membership as an insurance policy where decision-making is concentrated in a small group of elected leaders and/or paid staff.
We also are redefining the role of teacher unions so that we become the leading professional force in our communities to defend and improve the craft of teaching and the quality of public education.
Another essential part of social justice unionism is the recognition of the key role played by coalitions of parents, students, educators and community-on city and school levels. Such coalition work must deal not only with educational issues, but broader non-school issues such as living wages and voter and immigrant rights.
Teacher leaders in Los Angeles, Portland, St. Paul and elsewhere have drawn inspiration from the transformation of the Chicago Teachers Union. Led by Karen Lewis and other activists, the CTU organized a successful strike in September of 2012. The strike won significant improvements in the quality of schools and received overwhelming community support, despite the efforts of an appointed, corporate-dominated school board and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Their strike was anchored in months of member and community organizing, and the CTU continues to organize on numerous educational and community fronts.
Of course, teacher unions must respond differently depending on conditions they face.
I know. I am from Milwaukee, Wis. I was elected president of the Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association, the largest union local in the state, just weeks after Governor Scott Walker and his Koch brother friends imposed Act 10 on public sector workers (except the police and firefighter unions that had endorsed him).
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, and even those are limited to a yearly cost of living index. The new law ended fair share and payroll dues deduction. It imposed an unprecedented annual recertification requirement on public sector unions, requiring a 51 percent (not 50 percent plus one) vote of all eligible members, counting those who do not vote as a "no." Using those criteria, Governor Walker would never have been elected.
The governor then further attacked public schools and educators by imposing the largest cuts to public education in Wisconsin's history. He also expanded the Milwaukee-based private school voucher program statewide further contributing to the defunding of public schools.
The MTEA's response has been to accelerate our work as a social justice teacher union. We believe that schools must become greenhouses for both democracy and community revitalization. Our work has included:
- Building strong coalitions with community, parent, students and religious organizations to fight school privatization and to improve public schools.
- Creating our own Teaching and Learning Department to reclaim our profession and our classrooms.
- Establishing a non-profit organization, The Milwaukee Center for Teaching, Learning, and Public Education, that provides an array of teacher-to-teacher professional development.
- Dramatically increasing member participation in many areas: school-based building committees, neighborhood canvassing, union-sponsored professional development workshops and classes, campaigns and committees advocating for developmentally appropriate early childhood practices, bilingual education, less standardized testing, adequately staffed libraries, and more.
- Promoting culturally responsive teaching, including bilingual education, learning a second language for all students, and multicultural, anti-racist teaching.
- Partnering with the district on key reform initiatives such as the rollout of the new state mandated teacher evaluation system and the promotion of community schools within our district.
- Working to ensure the rights of members who now work under a "handbook," not a negotiated contract.
Whether teachers find themselves in the backward state of Wisconsin, or a state with more progressive labor and educational laws, teacher unions should reimagine themselves and move toward social justice unionism.
People are stepping up to the challenge. Last August and this spring, the Chicago Teachers Union and Labor Notes hosted meetings of local teacher union activists and leaders to learn from one another.
Support for these types of move towards social justice unionism appears to be coming from the highest levels at both the NEA and AFT.
At the 2012 NEA Representative Assembly NEA Executive Director John Stocks called on members to become "social justice patriots." NEA President Dennis Van Roekel has promoted the Great Public School initiative that encourages unions to move in these progressive directions.
Randi Weingarten has been arrested protesting school closings in Philadelphia, and this past March she spoke at the newly formed Network for Public Education conference in Austin, Texas, during which she announced she would recommend that the AFT no longer accept money from the Gates Foundation.
It is no longer sufficient to just critique and criticize those who are attempting to destroy public education. Teacher unions must unite with parents, students and the community to improve our schools-to demand social justice and democracy so that we have strong public schools, healthy communities, and a vibrant democracy.
Photo: Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, center, speaks with the media the first day of the 2012 teachers strike. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, right, marched with the teachers. (PW/John Bachtell)