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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Unions Are Good, Union Leadership Maybe Not

Why I Love Unions, But Not Always Their Leadership
by Liza Campbell

There is no shortage of fights to be fought on the education front here in New York and nationally. The Panel for Educational Policy continues to vote to close public schools and to colocate them with privately run education entities known as charter schools, whose backers often come from the business world. There is an intense national push for more teacher accountability, which translates for me and many of my fellow teachers into an increased focus on test scores, data, and merit pay. And there’s the attack on public worker unions, which provide one of the few venues in which workers can still have a collective say in governmental policies and in their working conditions, working hours, and job security.

While we teachers often find ourselves fighting against misguided reforms, there’s also a lot to fight for. As the largest local teachers union in the country, the United Federation Teachers here in New York has the ability to have an incredible impact on education and the direction of education reform. We could be building grassroots support for reforms that would transform education, including culturally responsive curriculum, smaller class sizes, parent and teacher empowerment, the alleviation of poverty-related factors that affect learning, and creating classroom environments that put critical thinking instead of test prep at the forefront.

Research and analysis have repeatedly demonstrated that the reforms listed in the first paragraph do not benefit students. It should seem obvious then, to most informed individuals, that teachers unions would be doing serious work on the ground to mobilize teachers in the fight against them. And of course they would be clearly presenting a positive alternative that could actually transform teaching and learning. This is why I love unions: They provide an opportunity for working people to have a significant voice in these matters, and they can organize their members in support of good policies and against bad ones.

And yet for some reason the Unity Caucus that leads the UFT, which has had practically unchallenged control over the union for decades, is not fighting in a way that so many people wish they would. They have chosen not to come out strongly against charter schools, which concerns me and and many others who are wary of the spread of charters as a privatizing tactic that has already begun to change the very nature of our public school system. On the contrary, they have started two of their own charter schools that occupy space in public school buildings. They have repeatedly undermined teacher protections and due process rights. The former president of the UFT and current president of the national AFT, Randi Weingarten, most recently said she would support the dismissal of tenured teachers without due process using a rating system that includes faulty test scores. Instead of capitulating to corporate-minded reformers who are pursuing these ill-advised changes, she should be arguing firmly that the focus on this small percentage of “bad teachers” is hugely misguided and a serious waste of resources that could be going into improving our schools.

Just as significantly, the UFT leadership has not adequately mobilized its members or galvanized school chapters to unite with parents and fight these misguided reforms. Instead, Unity continues to practice a failed method of preserving their seat at the table by capitulating, and of hoping that the Democrats whom they support with endorsements and finances will side with teachers and students. Too often the union relies solely on the legal system and the hope of a DOE error somewhere in order to try to stop the destruction of the public schools.

I’ve attended several Delegate Assembly meetings where members have brought up resolutions and essentially begged the leadership to do more to mobilize the base, to very little avail. The question I ask myself regularly is: Why are we, as a union, not fighting? Does the leadership not see mobilizing teachers and parents as a viable strategy? Does it not want to fight corporate reforms? Are UFT officials scared of losing control of the rank and file if the leadership makes a concerted effort to support us in organizing ourselves? I have been in far too many conversations, including two this past weekend at the NYCORE conference, where people have suggested their own theories about the true answer to the question, “why are they not really fighting?”

At the most recent meeting of the Grassroots Education Movement we were lucky enough to be joined by Rafael Feliciano, president of the teachers union of Puerto Rico. He shared some lessons from his union’s struggle against union-busting and privatization, and the lesson that resounded with me most profoundly was the need for continued and consistent organizing with teachers, students and parents at the very local, school-based level. He said that as the president of the teachers union he viewed the union’s role as supporting the individual actions of school communities to agitate around each school’s concerns. He said he would field calls from union leaders in an individual school who would say “we don’t have working toilets and parents are upset,” or, “we don’t have adequate books and the community wants to hold an action.” His response would be, “Do it! Organize it and we will support you and your parents in every way we can.”

The Unity Caucus leadership of the UFT doesn’t seem to take on a role that even closely resembles this kind of an organization. Their strategy focuses heavily on endorsing and depending on the support of politicians and while they pay lip service to fighting these corporate reforms they don’t seem to want to do the ground work to organize around the fights. This is particularly surprising considering the climate in education right now wherein so many teachers are simply itching to counter the attacks against them.

At a friend’s school the Unity-aligned chapter leader told her staff that they should not be involved in Fight Back Friday. The Fight Back Friday in my school, for the record, was amazing. Nearly every member of the staff participated, and at the end of the day we had over a quarter of our staff speaking to parents, students and community members at the nearby subway stop about why our schools need more teachers and resources, and about why teacher protections protect students. Nearly everyone we spoke to was supportive of teachers, and it led to some great conversations that never would have happened had teachers not taken it upon ourselves to educate, organize, and mobilize.

While the UFT leadership organized for a turnout against school closings at a Panel for Educational Policy meeting in January and then walked out of the meeting, it has done no sustained mobilization against the destructive school closings policy. Schools will close as planned unless something is done. I was one of the organizers of the large anti-school closings rally in January which UFT delegates voted to support, and yet Unity did nothing more than bury an announcement of the rally at the bottom of its weekly email update to chapter leaders.

Schools that are facing co-location of a charter school in their building that will take away resources and space for enrichment find little to no help from the UFT leadership. In fact, many of these schools reach out to GEM for support, and we have created a collection of resources to provide support and advice on fighting both school closings and co-locations.

GEM is a small (but growing!), unfunded group of dedicated educators, parents, and concerned citizens. Without question the union has significantly more resources at its disposal to organize, educate and mobilize around these issues. If the union would help schools fight these attacks by organizing something like Fight Back Friday across the city, imagine what kind of impact that could have. Instead of thirty schools, Fight Back Friday could be happening in hundreds of schools. Instead of talking to hundreds of parents and community members, in one day teachers could be talking to tens of thousands.

Unions, as a collective representation of working people, can be an incredibly powerful counter-force to corporate interests. Individual working people can have very little impact on policy because they do not have the financial prowess on their own to affect national policy the way those with a good deal of money at their disposal can. I am proud to be a member of a union, and I am very proud of my fellow UFT members. But when union leadership becomes too far-removed from the lived reality of their rank-and-file members and spends a significant amount of their time with the very people who are pushing the policies they should be fighting, they run the risk of losing sight of their mission. If the UFT had a leadership with a social justice orientation that viewed its role as strengthening educators’ ability to educate and mobilize against misguided reforms, then I would not only be proud of my union but proud of its leadership as well.