Story #1 is from Newark, NJ:
Eight months after negotiating “performance bonuses” funded by a Facebook fortune, Newark Teachers Union President Joseph Del Grosso was re-elected Tuesday by a margin of nine votes. A challenger slate that’s drawn inspiration from the Chicago Teachers Union captured seventeen of the twenty-nine seats on the NTU’s executive board, while barely falling short in its bid to oust Del Grosso. The new and old union officers will be sworn in together this afternoon, setting the stage for further conflict over the union’s orientation towards a nationally ascendant education reform agenda.“There was no overwhelming mandate for either slate,” Del Grosso told The Nation Thursday. He charged that his opponents “gave out a lot of bad erroneous information to the members” during the campaign, and said that having captured a majority of the board, “they’ll learn about unionism from the inside. So sometimes it’s nice to have people who like throwing rocks at people that are on the inside, actually be inside” themselves. Teacher Branden Rippey, a leader of the competing NEW Caucus who was Del Grosso’s opponent in Tuesday’s election, countered, “I think he and other union leaders like him feed right into the corporate reform agenda, if they have not collaborated with it.”As I reported for In These Times in October, the Newark contract deal was celebrated by Republican Governor Chris Christie and by American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who called the deal “a system of the future” and an example “that collective bargaining really works.” In contrast, Rippey told The Nation that the deal “basically is a complete capitulation to the corporate agenda.”
Story #2 comes from Washington, D.C.:Tuesday’s NTU election follows April’s leadership election in the AFT’s largest local, New York’s United Federation of Teachers. In both cases, incumbents survived challenges from caucuses demanding more aggressive opposition to the mainstream “education reform” agenda backed by billionaires like Zuckerberg. Both Newark’s NEW Caucus and New York’s MORE Caucus have taken inspiration from the Congress of Rank and File Educators, a caucus that seized control of the Chicago Teachers Union in a 2010 election and then mounted last summer’s week-long strike.Like Chicago’s CORE Caucus, Rippey said NEW plans to use its foothold on the executive board to push for greater democracy in the union, to re-engage members and to build deeper ties to the broader community in Newark. “We’re not trying to just be a bread-and-butter union,” said Rippey. “We’re trying to make society better for everyone.” Rippey said that he sees “little bubbles” of such teacher unionism “starting to bubble up in different parts of the country.” But “I think we’re only about 5 percent of the way to building a movement.”
Story #3 is Anthony Cody's report on the National Education Association's Representative Meeting last week in Atlanta, where implementation of the Common Core was a hot topic:Washington Teachers’ Union members voted Monday evening to unseat their incumbent president in favor of a candidate who promised to more forcefully challenge school system management.Veteran teacher and WTU activist Elizabeth Davis defeated Nathan Saunders with 55 percent of the vote in what both candidates said would be a game-changing election for the union, which is negotiating a new contract.“It was a referendum on many fronts,” said Saunders, who received 380 votes to Davis’s 459. “They want more aggressive change than what I was dishing out.”[...]Saunders was elected in 2010 after accusing then-WTU President George Parker of being too cozy with management. In office, Saunders sought to strike a cooperative relationship with Henderson, an approach he said was necessary to stay relevant and push for teachers’ interests at a time of nonunionized charter schools’ quick growth.Davis, a longtime WTU activist, said Saunders ignored teachers who wanted a stronger voice pushing back against some of Henderson’s decisions, including her closure of 15 schools and her use of “reconstitution,” in which all teachers at a school must reapply for their jobs.“We do not plan to be a roadblock to school reform or play to the stereotype of a union that blocks improvements, but we do not plan to be silent” on such issues, Davis said.
Anthony references Fred Klonsky, who posted some rather tart pieces on his blog about his experiences down in Atlanta at the NEA-RA. For example:But the biggest reservation I have about the approach the union leaders are proposing is that it does not seem to be working in the very places where the unions are the strongest. Yesterday a report was published, written by Sarah Jaffe, that describes the contracts negotiated in New York, where the AFT is very strong.We learn that teachers have 20 to 25% of their ratings based on state test scores, and another 15 to 20% from school-based measures, which are likely to be more tests. The worst part is that the state test scores trump all other factors. If a teacher is rated ineffective based on these tests, they MUST be rated ineffective overall.And this has been negotiated in a state where the AFT is, so far as I understand, been pursuing the strategy now being embraced by the NEA.
Is there something I am missing in how this strategy will unfold? It seems to me that if we embrace the Common Core, and position ourselves as expert implementers, we cannot help but legitimize these standards as a solid set of benchmarks for student performance. Once we make that commitment, aren't we stuck with the judgment that is reached by the tests when they arrive? Or we must make the difficult argument that the standards are perfectly fine but the tests are flawed. Given the momentum behind the Common Core, and the full court press we are going to see, with even the National Public Radio chiming in with experts demanding that we stop "hiding" low performing schools, this seems as if it sets us up in a very defensive posture.I think we would be better off taking a position that exposes the Common Core standards and associated tests for what I believe them to be. Get off defense and mount a strong offense that exposes what is going on here. An effort to refresh the phony indictment of our schools as failures, in order to open up the market for semi-private charters, virtual charters, and vouchers for private and parochial schools. Collaborating on implementation with the promise of a fight when the tests arrive is like buying a lemon and hoping the mechanic can fix it later.
Let's start with this: I like Fred's blog a lot, and I trust him (hope we can meet some day, Fred) - but I wasn't there. I have no idea what Dennis Van Roekel said at the Retired Conference, and I wouldn't care to guess. Frankly, I have a very hard time believing Van Roekel would ever give up the fight for collective bargaining; but I also have a hard time believing Fred got this wrong. I'm inclined to believe this was a misunderstanding that escalated out of control and just leave it at that.From the preliminaries I was concerned that a push by the national leadership and President Dennis Van Roekel of the Common Core standards would cause a big unfortunate fight.I had written earlier about his unscripted belligerent speech to the Retired Conference where he seemed to surrender the union’s core mission of collective bargaining in favor of pushing the Common Core.In his keynote address to the RA this afternoon DVR was back on his pre-conference intended scripted message. Now there was no mention of collective bargaining. It was all about “educator-led reform and student success.” And read from a teleprompter.He offered the now-required and expected criticisms of those like Michelle Rhee and other corporate reformers. “We are going to take charge of our own professions…we want to move beyond the old debate that has been defined by others—and replace their kind of solutions with our solutions.”However there was little mention of school closings or the 300,000 teachers – NEA members – who have lost their jobs over the past three years.Or the loss of collective bargaining rights in states like Michigan and Wisconsin.The Wisconsin delegation is located next to the Illinois delegation, right in front of the podium. Milwaukee teachers lost all collective bargaining rights last week. Van Roekel did not mention it.It was as if the current struggle in education is only about curriculum, instruction and evaluation.Not jobs, contracts, pensions or privatization.
It's clear that Fred's doubts were occurring within the context of a larger debate about the role of teachers unions and the strategies and tactics they should use going forward. The NEA and the American Federation of Teachers have two big fights on their hands: the traditional struggle to secure good wages and working conditions for their members, and a fight to save public education itself. The current stage of what is an arguably a never-ending war has been waging for several years, and it's clear that teachers are looking at their unions and taking stock.
We can basically divide the folks engaged in this debate into two camps: insiders and outsiders. The insiders, represented by the traditional union leadership, are relying on relationships and lines of communication built up over the years to work the system and get what they can for their members. In their view, you can't represent your interests if you aren't at the table, and it would be foolish to simply throw away the access they've worked so hard to get.
The outsiders, in contrast, think the problem is the system itself. If you sit down with the people who are destroying public schools, you become complicit in their corruption. There's no point in trying to negotiate with these people because they don't want to work out a deal with the unions; they want to destroy them.
This is obviously a continuum, and most everybody sees at least some benefit in the other side's point of view. Readers of this blog know that I tend to be more sympathetic to the outsiders, but I've been around long enough to know that it's foolish to win a battle if it costs you the war. Litmus tests for politicians, for example, can get us into a world of trouble, especially when giant, reformy campaign money funnels stand poised to slosh a torrent of cash down the throats of "liberal" politicians the unions may abandon. We've got to fight, but we've got to fight smart.
So unions are going to have to find the sweet spot here: sometimes an open palm, sometimes a fist. Union leaders are going to have to acknowledge the frustration their members are feeling, and show them that they are ready to engage in battle when needs be. At the same time, the more combative members of the unions will have to understand that sometimes it's worth it to give up a pawn if it means you protect the king.
This debate, by the way, is perfectly healthy. Unions are democratic (small-d) institutions and we should have these conversations out in the open. But let me be very clear about one thing I see every now and then that I think is potentially toxic:
Let's not go down the road of questioning the motivations of union leaders or their critics. When the Newark teachers contract was being debated, you would have been hard-pressed to find anyone who found more flaws with it than I did. And I was none too happy when Randi Weingarten appeared with Chris Christie on national television to sing the praises of this agreement. But I never questioned her loyalties to her members, and I never questioned Joe Del Grosso's motivations.
Unless and until you can present me with real evidence that a union leader is corrupt, I am not about to say they are self-dealing. I may question the wisdom of their tactics and strategies; I may express displeasure at the company they keep. What I won't do (again, in the absence of evidence to the contrary) is call them sell-outs because their way of working doesn't match up with my predilections.
In the same way: dissent is not disloyalty. If people don't like the way their union is being run, the correct response - as in the case of the Newark's NEW Caucus, Chicago's CORE, NYC's MORE, and other opposing slates - is to run for office and make your case to the members. If the NEA-RA doesn't like the way the leadership runs things, they not only have the right to say so - they have a duty. Dissent toughens up leaders: it forces them to answer for what they've done, and it holds them accountable. No one should be afraid of criticism if it's made in good faith.
As regular readers know, the person I most admire in the American labor movement right now is Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union. Karen has run tough campaigns for her union position, and she is not afraid to go toe-to-toe with her rivals. But Karen doesn't waste her ammo on internal squabbles; she has, instead, targeted those who would see her union and her city's public schools be destroyed. She leans toward the outsiders, but she knows when to let off the gas.
Karen leads by example, and she gets results; that's why she's earned the trust and respect of Chicago's teachers. She's not afraid to be held accountable, and she doesn't question the motivations of her challengers because she doesn't need to. That's the way a union should be led.
I've been optimistic lately about the rising opposition to the reform agenda, but this fight is far from over. So let's have the debate about how unions should proceed; let's hold our union leaders to account.
But let's not lose sight of who the real enemy is.
Great minds, thinking alike.