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Sunday, February 20, 2011

From The Washington Post: Can the Unions And The D.C. School System Keep Poor Teachers Out Of The Classroom?

When Randi Weingarten hired me to  work at the UFT, she asked me to help any member that needed assistance, and she also  asked me to find out why members were in the "rubber room", what was their 'story'. Most, but not all, of the people I spoke with on a daily basis were the teachers labelled "incompetent, sexual perverts, thieves, and rogues of all sorts who were sitting in the 7 (then 8) Temporary Re-Assignment Centers (TRCs) or "rubber rooms" located throughout New York City. These people were targets of principals who were empowered to do whatever they wanted in their schools....including getting rid of 'garbage' like expensive employees with senior status who were paid high salaries. Why pay someone that amount of money ($80,000-100,000) when you could get two young, vulnerable newbies for the same price? This is not new information, and I dont need to repeat why this has nothing whatsoever to do with children, academic achievement, success for all. What I needed to do was find out how each member ended up re-assigned, what event or non-compliance with a rule, regulation, or law, placed X or Y in the re-assigned location.

The point I want to make, and will make in my book on the Rubber Rooms and the 3020-a Arbitration process, is that we all need to look at how the labelling/judgment of people as "poor" or "incompetent" happens, and what changes need to be made relative to the way that false claims against a person's character, career, life, etc. are accepted at face value and become 'fact'. I have spoken to some of my daughters' teachers who, in my opinion, are the best in the classrooms of New York City. One person whose story I will write about shortly was thrown out of my youngest daughter's school, NEST, after years of harassment. He sued Dr. Olga Livanis, the Principal, won his case, and now is back doing the excellent job that he was always doing. When he came to my office  at the UFT he was angry and bitter, which is understandable, and vowed to get his job back, which he did, but underneath all of the words was a speck of self-doubt. He was not able to ignore the fact that the principal found him intolerable, and this ate away at his self-esteem. I was very saddened by this (I'm one of his biggest fans) however I see this all the time - teachers labelled miscreants for any reason end up sometimes believing the lie. They give up, settle, go to  the job market with "Ineligible/No Hire List" on their resume and act as if somehow there was some truth behind it, and never are able to shake the label that they are, indeed, in some way, garbage.

Whether someone is indeed "incompetent" necessitates the application of facts gathered by means of a thorough investigation conducted by a neutral person in good faith. This fact-finding is time-consuming, but the only basis upon which labels of "poor", "incompetent", "pervert" or other label can have any value.

Thus I have a problem with the title of the article in the Washington Post below. Of course no parent or school administrator wants a "poor" teacher. But who defines this word? Why?

Betsy Combier

Can the unions and D.C. school system keep poor teachers out of the classroom?

Editorial, The Washington Post
Friday, February 18, 2011; 8:14 PM

WE GET IT. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and Washington Teachers' Union President Nathan Saunders really don't like former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle A. Rhee. That was apparent in their response to our criticism of an arbitrator's ruling reinstating 75 probationary teachers dismissed from the school system two years ago. But their critique of Ms. Rhee - what they called her "my way or the highway" style - doesn't address the core issue: that these teachers needed to be fired. Nor did it answer the question of why a union that purports to have no tolerance for low-performing teachers would fight to return to the classroom teachers so problematic that even the arbitrator acknowledged that their conduct warranted termination.

D.C. school officials are determining the best way to deal with the Feb. 7 ruling by arbitrator Charles Feigenbaum ordering back pay and reinstatement of teachers who, he determined, were denied due process. At issue was the system's failure to give exact reasons why the teachers were not being recommended by their principals for tenure. Ms. Rhee has said the process was in keeping with city law and guidance from the system's legal team. Interestingly, the local union had had some inkling of how the system planned to proceed when hiring letters were sent to the teachers but, according to testimony provided to the arbitrator, didn't object because the letters were sent to people before they were part of the bargaining unit.

Clearly, in hindsight, the specific reasons should have been spelled out because the thought of reemploying this group - which ran the gamut from teachers chronically AWOL to those neglectful, even abusive, of students - is frightening. We also don't think Ms. Weingarten is wrong when she argues the need for teachers to have information about their performance, although we suspect the teacher who had been repeatedly warned about playing DVDs in class and his use of inappropriate language with students must have had some inkling things weren't going well. Ditto the teacher who received a "Needs Improvement" rating for the year and had a habit of calling in sick on Mondays and Fridays.

The critical question is what happens next. School officials seem leery of an appeal because of what they see as a propensity for the public employee relations board to find in favor of labor. Another avenue being explored is bringing back the teachers and then firing them, this time detailing the reasons. Here's another idea: Why don't Mr. Saunders and Ms. Weingarten - who both say they don't countenance poor teachers - try to work out an agreement with school officials to achieve that goal instead of refighting old battles about the long-gone Ms. Rhee?

Rhee's firing of 75 D.C. teachers in 2008 was improper, arbitrator says

By Bill Turque, Washington Post Staff Writer, Wednesday, February 9, 2011

An independent arbitrator says that the District must reinstate 75 new teachers fired by then-D.C. schools chancellor Michelle A. Rhee during their probationary period in 2008, ruling that the dismissals were improper because they were not told the reasons why.

The ruling, issued Monday by Charles Feigenbaum, was narrowly cast. It said the school system had the right to fire teachers during their two-year probationary period if they had received negative recommendations from school principals. Feigenbaum said the "glaring and fatal flaw" in Rhee's action was that the teachers were not given reasons for their terminations.

"They had no opportunity to provide their side of the story," Feigenbaum wrote.

D.C. schools spokesman Frederick Lewis said that the District was "reviewing its options to appeal or challenge the arbitrator's decision and has not come to any decision about further litigation."

Rhee could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

The 75 teachers were part of the approximately 1,000 educators fired during Rhee's 31/2-year tenure, which ended with her resignation in October. Of the total, 266 were laid off in October 2009 for budgetary reasons, about 200 were dismissed because of poor performance, and the rest were on probation or did not have licensing required by the No Child Left Behind law.

Feigenbaum ordered the District to make a 60-day good-faith effort to find the fired teachers and offer them reinstatement in an appropriate job. He also ordered that they be made financially whole. Union officials estimate the back-pay award could amount to $7.5 million - a considerable sum for the cash-strapped District.

Lewis said the cash awards would be offset by any earnings since the day of termination.

Nathan Saunders, president of the Washington Teachers' Union, said the arbitrator's decision is affirmation that Rhee's aggressive approach to firing teachers was counterproductive and illegal.

"This argument that Michelle Rhee-style terminations en masse improve the quality of education is unfounded and expensive for the government when it acts in this fashion," Saunders said.

Probationary employees generally are considered to have fewer workplace protections than those with permanent status. But the collective bargaining agreement that was in place at the time of the firings made no distinction between the dismissal of probationary and tenured teachers.

Feigenbaum said that the city and the union had "a long unbroken practice" of following the same procedures for dismissing permanent and probationary educators, which required a negative recommendation from a school principal.

Before Rhee's arrival, it was rare for teachers from either group to be fired for performance issues.

Under the labor contract ratified in June, all teachers are subject to the IMPACT evaluation system, which stipulates that teachers receiving a "minimally effective" rating for two consecutive years face dismissal.
New WTU Pres. Nathan Saunders: 'It's been all teacher blood' on the floor

By Bill Turque, Washington Post

Space and time limitations kept me--as they often do--from including as much as I wanted in today's story about new WTU president Nathan Saunders. So here's a bit more.

Saunders, 45, is the son of a bricklayer, born in the Washington Highlands neighborhood of Southeast D.C. His name first surfaced in The Washington Post in the summer of 1981 as a 16-year-old intern for D.C. Council member Wilhelmina Rolark (D-Ward 8). According to the story, Saunders was trying to organize support for an extension of the Voting Rights Act. Standing near the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. and Portland Street S.E., he told a group of voting-age adults: "If you don't vote, it's just like you're a slave standing in a cotton field. You don't have any say in what happens."

Saunders attended Catholic elementary and secondary schools before graduating from Morehouse College with a business degree. He worked as an accountant and in real estate and economic development before beginning his education career--first as a volunteer teaching chess at the old Phelps Vocational High School and then as a government teacher at Anacostia High School in the late 1990s. Saunders said his union activism began when a colleague's grievance was ignored by the WTU. Looking at the union financial reports with an accountant's eye, he said it became apparent that the numbers under president Barbara Bullock didn't add up.

Bullock eventually pled guilty to conspiracy and other charges in the theft of $4.6 million in union funds from 1995 to 2002 and served five years in federal prison. Saunders filed a civil suit charging that WTU and the American Federation of Teachers failed to oversee union finances and spending. He was elected general vice president in 2005, part of a reform ticket that included George Parker, the union president he unseated this week.

He holds a masters degree from the National Labor College and completed Harvard Law School's six-week Trade Union Program for labor leaders. His wife, Chandrai Jackson-Saunders, is a school psychologist for DCPS and the daughter of former WTU president Jimmie Jackson. They have a son who is a senior at Roosevelt High School.

Here are more excerpts from our conversation Wednesday afternoon, edited for clarity and length:

BT: When I talked to George Parker last week I asked what he expected if you won. He said gridlock and confrontation.

NS: I've got more skills to solve problems than practically any president that's ever run WTU. I also have formalized training in problem resolution. My masters is in negotiation and management....Part of the Harvard Trade Union Program is conflict management. And so I think I have some unique skills to solve problems.

BT: There is a segment of the DCPS community that sees your election as a setback.

NS: No, absolutely not. My election indicates that WTU will be up and running and fully functioning and contributing to real public school dialogue and success. The fact of the matter is that public school reform to a large extent under the former mayor and the former chancellor did not involve the community and teachers very successfully. I can say to you that I will not sit by idly while policies and practices are instituted that do not involve the teachers and the community. I'm going to be very proactive, not reactive, in involving the community and teachers in public school reform. So in that regard it's positive. Now if you don't want any community input and you don't want any teacher input, then [my election] could be viewed as a negative.

BT: You framed your victory as one for job security and union democracy. What was absent was any mention of the interests of students.

NS: What's good for teachers is often times good, very good, for students. Empowering teachers is also a method of empowering students. I argue that the best teachers are empowered teachers. That's what I tried to do as a classroom teacher. I saw in my students a sense of pride and a sense of personal growth and development when I was dealing with the Bullock scandal and dealing with my union. When they saw me in the newspaper and they saw me speaking publicly about issues of education, they were proud....I taught social justice. Rev. Al Sharpton co-taught my government class with me during [his] presidential campaign. So students are important. But I'm not afraid to talk about teacher empowerment. The union serves three primary functions: compensation, negotiation and working conditions. Members pay to be in the union. Under the law you are required to represent those interests and that's what I do and I'm proud of that. It doesn't mean that I don't represent student interests, though. I believe that often times the best way to get an excellent finished product is to represent the worker who has to complete the finished product.

BT: So it would be a mistake to assume there will be a new period of confrontation and conflict?

NS: Absolutely. Listen, today I begin to build my legacy as president of the WTU. I get nowhere with confrontation. Nowhere at all. But whenever confrontation will lead me to progress for the people I represent, I will engage in confrontation. But confrontation is not the first order business. Getting the job done is the first order of business. At the same time, when your opponent understands that you're not afraid to go to the mat, you don't have to go to the mat quite as often. But what we've experienced in the last three years is a lot of blood on the floor, and it's been all teacher blood.

BT: Tell me as succinctly as you can your biggest issues with IMPACT.

NS: My biggest issue with IMPACT is that it causes teachers to be unnecessarily stressed about a job which requires a tremendous amount of creativity. I think my problem with IMPACT is that it requires teachers' careers to be jeopardized for factors that they have absolutely no control over, which include poverty, health care and dysfunctional homes.

BT: So if you had Harry Potter's wand what would you do to IMPACT? How would you change it to make it fair?

NS: I don't feel responsible to change it to make it fair. What I feel responsible for is to help create a system that yields fair results for the people that it judges....that is not punitive and cannot be easily manipulated by individuals with nefarious intent.

BT: You think the whole thing needs to be re-thought?

NS: It should be in its entirety, absolutely.

BT: In an evaluation instrument [that you consider] fair to teachers, is there any place for value-added methodology? Taking students' previous year's test scores, developing a predictive model for how they should do the next year and then measuring that against how they ultimately perform?

NS: Teachers do that every day. I did in the classroom. It's called pre-test and post-test....I love testing in the European model, which is that they test for determining a baseline, not for purposes of punishing.

BT: So you don't believe that value-added should be used, if it's used at all, for high-stakes decisions like hiring and firing?

NS: Absolutely. Now that's a fact. But I believe it can and should be used, but it is only as one of many evaluation tools.

BT: There's a legal barrier you face in that IMPACT cannot be collectively bargained.

NS: Ever seen a law you couldn't change? All you have to do is have the will. All you have to do is build a movement around an issue and change public opinion. You show merit in your ideas. That to me is very exciting.

BT: Before IMPACT, before Michelle Rhee, the vast majority of teachers got "meets expectations" or "exceeds expectations" on their evaluations. Yet the school district had a really abysmal record of academic achievement. There's a disconnect there that people find hard to justify.

NS: I find it hard to justify that in one of the most educated cities, probably the most educated city in America, and one of the most affluent cities, one third of our children live in poverty. I find that more appalling.

BT: Basically the Rhee reality is, "We know there's poverty, that there's family dysfunction and health issues. We can't do anything about that. All we can control is what is in the classroom. And we can't use that as an excuse any more. But you're in a different place.

NS: Absolutely. And let's understand why I'm in a different place. I believe that the Rhee reality you just described helps allow those conditions to exist. Because they take the pressure off society to focus on them...We do a disservice to children whenever we allow the government or others to discount the fact that crime exists in these communities and we say it doesn't matter...It does matter. That's the social justice aspect of education.

Rhee didn't play by the rules

By Randi Weingarten and Nathan A. Saunders, Washington

The Feb. 11 editorial “What does it take to fire a teacher?” was quick to question why arbitrator Charles Feigenbaum would reinstate 75 “bad teachers.” It sadly and predictably missed the most important point of the ruling. Mr. Feigenbaum made clear that former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee never told fired teachers why they were dismissed. She ran a secret black box program when it came to firing the teachers, saying, “Trust me, I know best.” She found it acceptable to dismiss 75 teachers without providing notice, reason, opportunity to demonstrate remediation or opportunity to be heard.

This is yet another glaring example of why her “my way or the highway” management style was not good for students or teachers. The consequences of this style continue to create great injustice within our system — for our community’s children and for those who work to make a difference every day in our children’s lives.

Ms. Rhee often believed she was above the rules. Thankfully, an arbitrator reminded her — and all of us — that no matter who we are, we must play by the rules.

The writers are, respectively, president of the American Federation of Teachers and president of the Washington Teachers’ Union.

The Nation: Labor's Last Stand

Labor's Last Stand

Jane McAlevey, The Nation, February 16, 2011

Emboldened by November’s election results, corporations and their right-wing allies have launched what they hope will be their final offensive against America’s unions. Their immediate target is government workers’ unions. While New Jersey’s Republican Governor Chris Christie has gained national fame by beating up on public school teachers, the threat to unionized workers is playing out in all fifty states, to the drumbeat in the media about states going broke because of government workers’ wages, pensions and benefits. By late January, with the swearing-in ceremonies complete in the twenty-one states where Republicans have a “trifecta,” controlling the governor’s office and both statehouses, hundreds of bills had been introduced seeking to hem in unions if not ban them altogether. On February 11, Wisconsin’s new Republican Governor Scott Walker made what amounts to a declaration of all-out war on public sector workers in his historically progressive state, moving to deprive them of the very right to bargain collectively on matters essential to their economic security.

Walker’s gambit has rightly elicited outrage, but considering the breadth of the attack unions are facing nationally, it is only the tip of the iceberg. Right-to-work legislation has been filed in twelve states; this is in addition to the twenty-two that already have such laws on the books. In technical terms, this legislation makes it illegal for employers to condition employment on union membership or the equivalent dues payments even when a majority of workers vote to form a union; practically speaking, it makes building and maintaining a strong union very difficult, which in turn makes it harder to organize new workplaces because there are few positive examples of unions to point to. In Virginia, the corporations and right-wing ideologues decided that the existing right-to-work law wasn’t sufficient, and introduced a measure to embed the right-to-work provisions in the state Constitution. Three more states—Montana, Ohio and Wisconsin—are expected to have bills introduced converting their legal status to right-to-work.

Alabama passed legislation in January that bans public employee unions from collecting dues unless the unions first prove that none of the money will be used for supporting election campaigns. In every subsequent year after the initial certification, the union must submit itemized reports accounting for how its money is being spent. This law, sold as “paycheck protection” by the right but known as “paycheck deception” among union activists, has been introduced in four other states this year, including Arizona, Kansas, Mississippi and Missouri. In California there has already been ballot initiative language submitted to do the same. Using a variety of legal tools, these measures prohibit the use of union dues for political activity. Union advocates are expecting twelve more states to file bills or initiatives banning the collection of union monies for politics.

Building and construction unions are facing their own daunting lineup of bills that would gut prevailing wage laws and what are known as Project Labor Agreements (PLAs). These measures facilitate collective bargaining and the division of labor for unionized construction jobs, particularly construction jobs with public financing. In twenty states there is legislation expected to ban PLAs. In Iowa the new governor, Terry Branstad, was so excited to take up the challenge, he undid PLAs with his first executive order. The new governor of Ohio, John Kasich, has pledged to eliminate prevailing wage laws. It’s hard to say whether Missouri or Maine will beat him to his goal, though: Missouri’s legislation to ban prevailing wages has been introduced, and the new governor of Maine appointed the head of the building and construction industry organization to the position of state legislative director, a sure sign that he’s serious about eliminating such laws. The AFL-CIO says it anticipates anti–prevailing wage laws in fifteen states.

It is government workers, however, who face attacks in every state. Teacher tenure is being targeted in five states: New Jersey, Nevada, Indiana, Idaho and Florida. Laws that would allow parents, by petition, to “trigger” an entire school district to move to charter schools or to voucher programs are expected in at least eleven states. States that are considering either weakening or removing entirely the ability of public sector workers to bargain collectively include not only Wisconsin but Ohio, South Dakota, Colorado, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire and Oklahoma. Measures to dismantle benefits for government workers are expected in some form in all fifty states. Newt Gingrich and Jeb Bush, meanwhile, are pushing to allow states to declare bankruptcy, which would enable them to break their agreements that cover the pensions of hundreds of thousands of retired government workers. On top of all this, President Obama has called for a freeze on federal workers’ pay.

At the same time, a push to privatize public assets and services is mounting, posing a dire threat to public workers. Groups like In the Public Interest ( [1]) are working to hold back the privatization tide, but the momentum is on the other side. Donald Cohen, the group’s chair, notes a recent shift in the nature of the opposition. “The entire world of public administration is being driven by a new cartel of consulting firms who offer their services to elected leaders—peddling themselves as efficiency experts,” he says, explaining that these firms are increasingly playing the role that used to be filled by right-wing think tanks. “They are accounting firms, law firms and more who promote privatization, and they make money for completing the deal. And yet it has very little to do with efficiency and probably nothing to do with actually improving public services.”

It isn’t as if these types of attacks on unions are new; what’s different is their scale, intensity and real possibility of success. After outspending unions in November’s election by an estimated 4-to-1 margin, corporations and their allies are exploiting the fiscal crises across the nation to drive a stake into the heart of what is left of organized labor—public workers’ unions. According to the just-released Bureau of Labor Statistics annual report for 2010, the overall union membership rate in America continued its slide, dropping from 12.3 percent to 11.9 percent. But perhaps most striking is the way unionization is skewed when comparing private sector workers, who are just 6.9 percent unionized, and public sector workers, 36.2 percent of whom belong to unions. The public sector, in other words, is labor’s last stronghold.

Grover Norquist laid out a sort of blueprint for the current right-wing assault in the February 2001 American Spectator. Identifying labor unions as the first of “five pillars” of Democratic strength, he calculated that they “raise $8 billion a year from 16 million union members paying an average of $500 dues,” and outlined a game plan for destroying union power, key to the right’s larger mission of abolishing all regulations that impede its agenda, from environmental laws to occupational safety to affirmative action.

But, of course, the right’s campaign against labor has been decades in the making. In 1975 the overall unionization rate in the private sector was 25 percent. Thanks to the class war that has been waged since then—involving trade liberalization, radical reorganization of global finance rules, unionbusting, deindustrialization, rejiggered accounting rules and more—Norquist’s goal is now within reach for the right. According to union expert and author Bill Fletcher Jr., “There has been a three-decade campaign by the neoliberal Democrats and the right wing to destroy the base of the strength of the American middle class, which can be boiled down to unions and government regulation of corporate excess. As a result, unionization rates and corresponding pay and benefits now appear higher in the government sector, and the same forces are now attacking government workers’ unions.”

The irony, according to Janice Fine, professor at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, is that in the 1960s it was the private sector workers who earned more than their government counterparts. “Back then, the private sector unions helped the government workers get organized as part of a program to raise the standards for all workers,” she notes. Now, as Ed Ott, former director of the New York City Central Labor Council, puts it, “After thirty years of wage suppression in the private sector, big business wants to compare wages and benefits between the private sector and the government sector.” Republican presidential hopeful Tim Pawlenty did just that in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed. “Unionized public employees are making more money, receiving more generous benefits, and enjoying greater job security than the working families forced to pay for it with ever-higher taxes, deficits and debt,” he wrote. These claims are distorted [see Robert Pollin and Jeffrey Thompson, “The Betrayal of Public Workers [2]”], but to the extent that public workers do enjoy hard-won union benefits, they have a target painted on their back.

The stakes for both political parties in this struggle are high, because where the campaign to gut public sector unions succeeds, Republicans will be poised for almost certain electoral gains. In general, across the nation, the lower the rate of unionization, the redder the state. And in the bluest states, the public sector dominates the union scene: in New York, for example, the most unionized state, the rate among government workers is 70.5 percent, next to 13.7 percent in the private sector. In California the unionization rate among government workers is 56.6 percent, compared with 9.3 percent among the private sector workforce.

There is a strong correlation, moreover, between red states, right-to-work laws, an overall worse quality of life for the average worker or poor person, and a more hostile climate for progressives, from environmentalists to civil rights activists. The average worker in a right-to-work state earns $5,333 less than his or her counterpart in a pro-worker state. Twenty-one percent more people lack health insurance. Late last year, immigration advocates anticipated Arizona-like measures in twenty-two states, eleven of which are controlled by Republicans. Of those, seven are right-to-work states. Not surprisingly, three that are not—Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana—are where the attack on government workers’ unions is the strongest.

Given the strategic importance of this fight, you would expect the progressive community to be rallying to mount a loud and vigorous counterattack. But the response has been anemic at best. Unions and progressives need to reset and develop a strategy quickly if they are to defend the ground they still hold, let alone recapture what has been lost. For almost forty years, the right has been systematically tearing apart the achievements of unions and social justice movements. The first challenge is to own up to the ways progressives and unions have failed to counter this onslaught.

Take the teachers unions. In the late 1960s they fought against community control of the New York City schools, sparking tension with the black community that lingers even now. As Fletcher argues, this rift is reflective of some of the deeper issues facing unions. “The AFT, at least until fairly recently, in confronting the attacks on public education, tended toward a very defensive posture. Rarely did they contextualize their fight as part of the larger fight to defend the public sector,” he explains. “Their fight almost had the appearance of being a fight to defend a particular craft under assault rather than to defend a key component of civilization.” As a result, Fletcher points out, neither the American Federation of Teachers nor the National Education Association has been able to assemble significant coalitions for education reform, and even in many progressive circles are seen—unfairly—as a hindrance to education rather than as a key champion.

Likewise, 1199/SEIU alienated progressives with its selfish dealmaking under former New York Governor George Pataki, a Republican. For example, when Blue Cross Blue Shield privatized, the healthcare workers union brazenly claimed the one-time windfall of money to pay for wage increases, in exchange for endorsing the man who was stepping on every other member of the traditional Democratic coalition.

The lukewarm support for unions generally and for government workers unions in particular in the progressive world is partly a legacy of such missteps by unions themselves. But in addition, there’s a more fundamental source of tension that is often ignored: most people who constitute the opinion-making class among liberals and progressives are upper middle class and mostly white. The progressives in academia and journalism, and the staff of most nonprofits from all movements, think tanks and foundations, are from a class that has little to no contact with unions. Even when there is an intellectual understanding of labor’s role in US history, there is often a lack of sympathy about the need for unions today. This is particularly true among liberal and progressive foundations, where support for unions is often a hot-button issue with boards of directors and top executives. Because these foundations represent the employer class for the social change movement, this has impeded the development of more effective strategies to counter the right-wing agenda.

Even among unions the fissures run deep. In New York, for example, where newly elected Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo has made slashing the state budget his single-minded mission, organized labor has not put up a united front against the cutbacks. The construction unions were especially eager to sell out the government workers unions for their own benefit. Ott explains how this works: “With the crashing economy, unemployment in the building trades in NYC is now somewhere in the 35 percent range, and some political entity comes along and says to the trades, ‘Hey, we will produce some jobs for your members on the capital side if you support us politically in this revenue fight.’”

This logic is not unusual for construction unions, which operate largely as craft unions—representing workers with a specific craft or skill, who have the ability to negotiate for themselves by withholding that skill. The construction unions have a long history of being an elitist labor force that has been used by politicians to split the union movement.

Rutgers’s Janice Fine says that overcoming divisions will take real work among unions. “When unionization rates and corresponding pay and benefits are so asymmetrical between the public and private sectors, unions have to take very deliberate steps to preserve solidarity,” she says, citing historical examples of public unions providing support to private sector unions by boycotting products, stores and companies, and supporting union products, banks and hotels. “This tradition is gone, and union members need to go back to consuming in a way that supports the unionized class. And private sector unions need to resist the short-term gain of undercutting public sector unions’ wages, benefits and pensions as it will only reinforce a race to the bottom that has no place for unions of any kind.”

The entire house of labor and all progressives must understand that we have not had a moment as threatening as this in our lifetime. The right is making the connections—attacking public employee unions and public services at the same time in order to wage complete war on the poor, people of color, and the working and middle classes of this country. Sadly, the left has not made the connections. To the extent that public sector unions, private sector unions and those fighting budget cuts allow themselves to be divided, they are playing into the right’s hands.

Assuming unions and progressives can focus on the enormity of the challenge before us, let’s review some of the tools and knowledge in our arsenal to defeat the antigovernment and antiunion offensive.

In Nevada, where I led a union that had been heavily dominated by public sector workers, we successfully beat back a divide-and-conquer unionbusting campaign waged by right-wing forces who had teamed up with the Democrats who led county government. In 2003 a Democratic county executive named Thom Reilly aligned with the Chamber of Commerce and the Nevada Taxpayers Union to produce a report that sounded the same themes as the current national campaign against government workers. In a media blitz, Reilly blasted public workers for earning more than their private sector counterparts. With a Democrat as the messenger, liberals were confused, including many union members.

In response, we set out first with a massive campaign to educate the rank and file about the coming attack. In the first year, we organized meetings with more than 2,000 government workers by designing an educational module distributed to almost every unionized facility at break times and shift changes. At every union meeting for two years, attention was directed to the economy; the class war against all workers; how the right had come first for private sector unions and now were coming for public sector unions; and the need to “draw a line in the desert” to raise expectations, so that workers could unite to reclaim what they deserved.

We talked openly and often about how, if the county executive wanted to point out the disparity in the pay of unionized government workers versus that of workers in the nonunionized private sector, he was right. But rather than accepting that government workers—including many people of color and women—who still had a decent job with the ability to retire should surrender what they had to the lowest common denominator, we challenged them to get behind two big initiatives. The first was to organize the private sector workers as fast as possible so that we could bring them up to the same standard. The second was to change the image of the government workers by making the quality of the government services reflect the highest standards possible. We wanted “government workers” to have a sort of Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval in the public’s mind.

We kept at these efforts over the next several years, and by the time the government workers arrived at their next round of collective bargaining, the county executive’s message—that county workers were overpaid compared with their private sector counterparts—had lost its force. For one thing, we had raised private sector standards through organizing and negotiating strong contracts. In fact, in a two-year period, the private sector hospital workers went from wages and benefits far below those at the big public hospital to wages higher than and benefits catching up to those of government workers. And through it all, we elevated an internal education campaign and external message framed around the American Dream—who had stolen it and how the way to bring it back was by organizing, bargaining and setting higher standards for all workers. It was crucial that despite lots of strains, union solidarity held together to beat back one ballot initiative after another that sought to all but eliminate the already small tax base in Nevada.

We also took on the libertarian contempt for government that was so popular in Nevada—which was prominently displayed in hateful editorial cartoons like those that are now common in states like New Jersey, depicting government workers as fat, lazy, overpaid bureaucrats. We did this in part by engaging the members in a newly designed training program for union stewards aimed at reshaping the grievance process for a union whose workers perform services for the community rather than assembly line work on a machine. But it was only after thousands of conversations that we were able to help workers—even government workers—overcome their suspicions of government.

We know that Americans are predisposed to be more suspicious of government than they are of unions. Union organizer Fernando Gapasin, co-author of Solidarity Divided, says, “Karl Rove did an analysis of the core values of Americans, and he took that individualism is one core idea. For a lot of people this translates to the corporations as the highest form of someone’s individual aspirations. For a lot of people individual responsibility and individual achievement gets confusing, and it leads to workers telling me that if they were laid off, they would refuse to collect unemployment, because if they or their families can’t take care of themselves, there’s something wrong with them.” The Norquist forces are, in effect, running a message that aligns neatly with the dominant cultural narrative in America. Unions and progressives have a message and solutions that are seemingly running against this narrative. This is precisely why organizers and organizing are required, not simply mobilizing and messaging.

Liberals and progressives don’t understand why, in poll after poll, Americans support Social Security, Medicare and money for their local parks and other services but oppose “big government.” If we want to close the gap in the often bimodal results of polling, we don’t need more polling: we need well-trained and highly skilled organizers who can help facilitate conversations among next-door neighbors and co-workers. We have good “framers.” We have smart policy wonks with big degrees who can write good policy. We have lawyers to defend the policy. And we have no one in any serious way out talking with Americans about this crisis. It’s organizers who help people in large numbers to come to the self-realization that things aren’t working and that it isn’t their fault. Good organizing is really the only way that workers, the unemployed and the poor can overcome the impulse to blame themselves for the crisis they face. Yet liberal foundations often balk at funding such efforts, believing that it won’t add up to policy change and channeling money instead to policy, legal and “communications” work.

Unions and progressives need to return to engaging large numbers of people in one-on-one conversations. Unions should kick-start the campaign by sponsoring and unleashing the biggest Union Summer program of all time and pay student interns, and unemployed rank-and-file workers, to work with union groups and nonunion allies in a mass education campaign that seeks to change the narrative from “We all go down together” to “It’s time to return to the American Dream we all deserve.” Unions must stop pretending to be engaging the base by setting up call centers or buying cellphones for their members. Foundations must stop pretending that unions don’t matter, and that messaging strategies can overcome America’s cultural norms of extreme individualism. Real conversations, where people have a chance to understand the war that is being waged against them and the power they must build, are the only thing that will save us.