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

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Newark vs. Chicago

No, this is not a post about hockey.

Earlier today, I posted the latest statement about the Newark teachers contract from a group of rebels within the union, the NEWCaucus. They are not happy:
After listening to and talking to fellow education workers, we have come to the conclusion that this contract was passed NOT because we believed that this contract is in the best interest of teachers and students, but because the membership did not have confidence that the NTU leadership has a plan, a will, or the ability to fight for something better. The membership reached this decision after witnessing attacks from the federal, state, and local governments for the past several years without any plan on the union’s part to fight back. The membership has seen statewide budget cuts, the closing of schools, hundreds of teachers’ robbed of their jobs and labeled EWP’s (Educators Without Placements), and a barrage of criticism from the media and political elites – all without a real response from their union. On top of this, NTU’s parent union, the American Federation of Teachers under Randi Weingarten, worked overtime to persuade, manipulate, and scare the membership into accepting this deal. AFT staffers called people at home, NTU leaders and AFT staffers made schools visits and stuffed teachers mailboxes with slick literature urging them to vote yes because we would get something while other districts were getting nothing, and because the alternative would be something worse. None of them proposed a plan to fight for something better! 
Now, I'm not about to pass judgment on whether this is true, because, obviously, I wasn't there. I can, however, tell you that it is common practice for unions to lobby their members to ratify agreements; that, in and of itself, really isn't an issue. And I have no reason to believe that Randi Weingarten or Joe Del Grosso or anyone else with AFT or the Newark Teachers Union actually thought they could do better in arbitration, which would have been the next step. So, when the NTU leadership says they thought this was the best contract they could get, I am prepared to take them at their word (that, however, doesn't mean I think it's a good contract).

What the NEWCaucus statement clearly indicates, however, is that there is a sizable group of teachers in Newark who are not happy about this deal. And the discontent hasn't only manifested itself in the published complaints of critics; it's evident in the vote itself:

- 1761 for.
- 1088 against.
- 1845 no votes (approximate).

More NTU members didn't vote than voted for the contract. That's disturbing, especially when considering that the NTU has basically told its members "trust us" when it comes to creating the evaluation system that needs to be designed to distribute the merit pay bonuses. Too many members of NTU clearly are not invested in the process. And if the members don't like the system that emerges, and they weren't feeling involved to begin with, well...

Now, the big topic in the world of teachers unions this year was the Chicago teachers strike. Jonah Edelman, willing toady of the wealthy, told his patrons that there was no way the Chicago Teachers Union would ever be able to comply with a new law that required 75% of their members to authorize a strike. Let's compare the NTU contract ratification results to the results of the CTU strike authorization vote:

- 23,780 for.
- 482 against.
- 2,240 no votes.

Say what you will about the strike or the subsequent deal: the CTU certainly had buy-in from its members. A strike authorization vote, however, is not the same as a contract vote; here are the results of the Chicago contract ratification vote:

- 16,428 for.
- 4,337 against.
- 5,737 no votes.

Let's compare the percentages:

The first thing that strikes me is that strike authorization votes are likely much more important to members than contract ratification votes. It's also likely that having a strike vote earlier colored the turnout for the contract vote in Chicago; I can't say whether it made it more or less likely that CTU members would participate in the second vote.

Still, the comparison is instructive. The CTU can confidently say that a majority of its members approved their contract deal; the NTU can't make that same claim. 

A lot has been written about how the Chicago strike has affected the public's perception of teachers unions. The consensus is that the union fared much better than Mayor Rahm Enamuel; hell, even Fox News had to admit the parents of Chicago were on the CTU's side.

Much less has been written, however, about how the Chicago strike affected teachers' perception of teachers unions. Could it be that the hard-nosed stance of CTU president Karen Lewis energized her members? That, in a climate of relentless teacher bashing, the educators of Chicago were grateful to finally see one of their leaders stand up and say, "Enough"?

Teachers unions have come to a fork in the road. One route leads to Newark; the other to Chicago.

Which road do their members want them to take?

I'd watch it more if it wasn't on at the same time as basketball.


ms-teacher said...

As a local union leader, the dilemma I face is one of apathy. It makes me wonder if the local leaders felt that even if the contract was voted down would they have support of membership to strike if necessary?

In my local last year, I kept getting calls and e-mails, and had conversations surrounding the safety of our campuses. Many of the teachers I spoke to demanded that the union DO something. So, my first step was to hold a forum so that we could determine what exactly membership was willing to do.

Even though it was well publicized, we had at most 100 teachers out of 800 show up. The most complaints I received were from middle school & high school teachers, and yet, of those 100 teachers about a handful were secondary teachers.

I keep asking myself what will it take to get the people I represent engaged in the process. Perhaps leadership in Newark felt the same way. Why didn't 1845 members vote either for or against the contract? Why did they choose to sit this one out? Maybe that is what the Newark leadership saw and realized that pushing to the next step really could have been worse - facing the unknown, rather than what was "known" about this agreement.

Unions are made up of people and the leadership is only as strong as the people who are standing behind them.

Duke said...

ms, I hear you. I have no doubt about your work ethic or abilities. I know what it's like to deal with apathy.

But we have to be honest with ourselves: is the fault ENTIRELY with membership? Could it be apathy is a symptom, and not a cause?

ms-teacher said...

I absolutely believe it is a symptom, but I struggle with how to to defeat it. I haven't figured out how to get the people I represent to get pissed off enough to do something about our miserable working conditions & the lack of respect we receive from the district.

Part of my frustration also stems from the lack of support from the state union. This is also felt by membership and too often, we are left wondering why the majority of our dues goes to the NEA and our state affiliate and we get so little in return.

NewarkTFA said...

As a proud member of both NTU and NEWCaucus, I must say that I believe that Joseph Del Grosso and some (not all) of the people he has hired bear some (not all) of the responsibility for apathy within the racks of the NTU.

Based on Mr. Del Grosso's remarks and behavior at various union meetings I have attended, I do not believe he wants us to be actively involved in our union, in politics, or in education policy.

For example, at the large membership meeting before the vote, he told a teacher who disagreed with him reagrding the merits of the evaulation system upon which the contract hinges, "I'll meet you outside."

Some (not all) union employess show similar contempt for the membership. At a meeting in my building a couple of years ago, the union's lawyer told a teacher who was complaining about out lack of a positive, pro-teacher publicity campaign to counteract Christie's very successful teacher-bashing, "Toughen up."

A couple of years ago, Randi Weingarten attended one of our membership meetings. At that meeting, Mr. Del Grosso made threatening remarks, leapt from the stage, and raced into the audience as if to assualt Jose Velasquez, who was running against him to be union president. Ms. Weingarten leapt into Mr. Del Grosso's path, spreading her arms and saying, "No, no, we don't want to do that," as if she were a lunchroom monitor trying to prevent a fight.

Yes, NTU members need to be more active, more involved. But those of us who are active have to insults, intimidation, and outright threats from our own so-called leaders.

ms-teacher said...

What you are describing sounds horrible, NewarkTFA. It is not the way it should be. I have had been vocal in my opposition to some of the positions my state and national union has taken on some of the issues. What I have always tried to convey to the members I represent locally in the past two ratification votes is that the power is ultimately in their hands. If they don't like an agreement, they should vote it down. This at least sends the message to the district that membership has spoken.

MarkFriedman said...

Ms Teacher-Here are a few solid resources on the issue of activating and sustaining participatory member involvement. As a rank and file activist organizing colleagues and parents, I was able to adapt these resources and methodologies to our local needs. The Labor Notes publications also include a decent amount of very useful guides for activating members as a progressive officer as well:




Rod viquez said...

I think many locals have gotten fat and lazy in NJ. I heard one local president say he is not interested in an adversarial relationship with admin. Another said that a written reprimand in your file was nothing to be upset about and it is fine to take the word of a student over the word of an adult.

This causes many teachers to have no respect for local leadership and they feel that the local leadership is more of a social function than actual leaders that will go toe to toe against admin and local BOE.

Not saying any specific local or leaders, but just conversation with teachers across the state. When the same story is repeated by several teachers in a district, I see it as good evidence that these stories are true