I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Monday, August 13, 2012

Befuddled Thinking On Teachers Unions

Usually, I like Bob Braun of the Star-Ledger. He did some stellar work on Education Commissioner Chris Cerf's secret deals and shifting stories right after Cerf took office. He's called Governor Chris Christie out on much of his teacher-bashing nonsense. Braun also got Chris Cerf to admit that student characteristics were an important part of "successful" charter schools' achievements (an inconvenient truth Cerf tries to ignore whenever he can).

So it's a shame to see Braun take a cue from the rest of the paper's op-ed page and write a piece that is primarily designed as an excuse to sneer at the NJEA (the New Jersey affiliate of the National Education Association). Admittedly, his tack is a bit unique: he goes after one teachers union by praising another:
The AFT is smaller than the state association’s parent National Education Association and has only a few locals in New Jersey. It does represent teachers in the nation’s largest cities — including New York and Los Angeles. And, since its founding as a local union in Chicago in 1897, the trade union has both outflanked the larger group on policy issues and forced the association’s hand on strategies like collective bargaining and strikes.
The first major teacher strikes in New Jersey — in Perth Amboy, Woodbridge, and Newark in the 1960s and 1970s — were conducted by the AFT at a time when the association rejected walkouts as a tactic. The association — it didn’t even call itself a union until the 1960s — was ambivalent about collective bargaining itself, preferring "professional negotiations" locally and legislation in Trenton to grittier means of winning contracts and benefits for members.
So, wait - is Braun praising the idea of teachers going on strike? Hey, I'm all with the Chicago teachers if that's what they need to do - but as a last resort. But I don't think it's good for kids or families or teachers to go through work actions if they can instead work in climates of mutual respect and change legislation to make things better for teachers. I hope I'm misreading Braun's point here, but I'm afraid I'm not.
But the association’s political power in Trenton has declined. It lost major legislative battles over pensions, privatization, and now tenure. The same association that would not budge on reforming administrators’ tenure in the 1988 law allowing state school takeovers—when it really had no direct stake in the fight — is now praising tenure changes that affect its members. For whatever good the NJEA does for its members — and that’s why it exists, to protect its members — it has been painfully and self-destructively slow in recognizing the need to change. [emphasis mine]
Braun packs a lot into that paragraph. First of all, as I've said repeatedly, I don't see how anyone can say that the NJEA "lost" the tenure battle. The final bill is nearly the same as NJEA's tenure proposal, and nothing like what Chris Christie or the anti-union lobbying shop B4K wanted. Yes, the union - and all pubic employee unions - did lose on pensions. But the privatization fight is far from over, especially now that the parents are in the game.

Braun also decides to embrace the reformyists favorite dig at unions: that they serve their members, unlike the reformy types, who are in it simply because they're such saints. Braun, of all people, knows that this is nonsense; that there are many on the reformy side who are looking out for their own interests. Why teachers, who are college educated workers making five-figure salaries that don't keep up with other professionals, deserve special attention when they stand up for their rights as workers is a mystery that Braun won't address.

Also, I can't speak to the 1988 law, but I do know this: that was nearly 25 years ago. The world changes. I doubt the issues back then had much in common with the issues teachers face now.
Unlike Weingarten’s AFT. In both a major speech recently in Detroit and in an interview while she was in Newark helping to negotiate a contract, the union leader said employee organization have to confront what she called "the new normal" for labor groups, a toxic mix of economic woes, the ascendancy of right-wing politics, envy about the security enjoyed by unionized public employees, and even attacks from former friends. Christie is not wrong when he says he and President Obama share some views on education.
``We have to do more than just refute our critics,’’ she says. ``We have to describe our values and advance them. We have to connect with people who should be our allies and we have to propose solutions.’’
OK, wait a minute. Look, I generally like Randi Weingarten, but I do sometimes disagree with her tactics. There are times when she is brought in to represent teachers' interests when the game is clearly rigged, and I think she'd be better to just walk away. I didn't like when she went to Fort Lee and appeared on an education special with Joe Scarborough; that's a district represented by NJEA, and she should have demanded that if the Fort Lee superintendent was going to be on to bash unions, the union that represents his teachers should have a chance to respond.

It's also worth pointing out that there are more than a few teachers in AFT who are not happy with Weingarten. To her great credit, she has always engaged her critics through Twitter and other means. In general, I think she's been a good voice for teachers, but I do think at times she is too accommodating to the reformy types; your mileage may vary.

My point is this: we can debate whether what Randi Weingarten and the AFT are doing what's best for teachers. What I don't see is that what she proposes is so radically different from the NEA when it comes to what's best for public education. Braun talks about counseling out teachers who are performing poorly in New Haven, but every union does that. He talks about changing staffing rules in Los Angeles and Cincinnati. He talks about social justice work in West Virginia. I dare say NEA could point to similar initiatives around the country.

What Braun neglects to mention, however, is the unprecedented attack on the NJEA that started from day one of the Christie administration. Yes, they supported Corzine, and he lost, but Christie's response has been completely out of proportion. He has constantly berated the union for its greed, declaring they against any reforms. He demanded teachers take pay cuts (they weren't freezes - they were cuts), but made no such demands on other public sector workers. He insults teachers in nasty and personal terms. He used a stupid joke told by an obscure union official over and over again as an excuse to avoid working with the NJEA.

Braun misses the story when he points to Weingarten and AFT and says to the NJEA, "Why can't you be more like them?" Instead, he should be praising NJEA for actually working to get a piece of tenure reform legislation done in a climate of vitriol that was created entirely by Chris Christie. He should be hailing NJEA for getting past the stupid, politically motivated union bashing of Chris Christie and actually getting something done. He should be acknowledging that NJEA swallowed their pride on behalf of their teachers and the state's schools.

But, instead, Braun says this:
It’s too soon to determine whether any of these initiatives will improve public education—just as it is far too soon to suggest that the reform of the tenure law in New Jersey will make any difference. The success of public education is tied more to the economic conditions of a community than to any piece of so-called "reform" legislation.
But as a strategy for a public employee union under attack, Weingarten’s approach of trying to anticipate change and then lead it rather than simply opposing it seems to be paying off. [emphasis mine]
Braun is absolutely right about economic conditions and their effects on schools. But you know what would help bring about those conditions? Good wages, decent benefits, workplace protections, and job stability - all the things that unions have fought for.

The reflexive dismissal of the NJEA is a feature of punditry across the state. Too bad Bob Braun, one of our best columnists, falls for it here. He'd be better off thanking NJEA for putting aside Christie's idiocy and working with the Legislature.

ADDING: NJ Parents has more.

UPDATE: Rereading, I want to be very clear about something: I am an NJEA member, but I support the AFT wholeheartedly. Again, I may have some issues with specific tactics or strategies of Weingarten's, but I am 100% behind AFT, and I support any social justice initiatives by any union.

The last thing any of us need are sniping wars between unions. That's not where the problems lie.


Deb said...

Duke, thanks to the link to Save Our Schools NJ and saying that with parents in the fight we have a better chance. We are trying hard. I hope this school year is the one that we shake the Christie painted view of unions that make natural allies warty to ally, and that we redefine our position clearly and positively so that we offer a positive alternative agenda to those determined to undermine and privatize public education. Together we can.

Duke said...