A Revitalized Teacher Union Movement

By Bob Peterson

Illustrator: Joe Brusky

Joe Brusky/Light Brigading on Flickr

If we don’t transform teacher unions now, our schools, our profession, and our democracy—what’s left of it—will likely be destroyed. I know. I am from Wisconsin, the home of Scott Walker and Paul Ryan.

In 2011, in the wake of the largest workers uprising in recent U.S. history, I was elected president of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association (MTEA). Unfortunately, that spring uprising, although massive and inspirational, was not strong enough to stop Gov. Walker from enacting the most draconian anti-public sector labor law in the nation.

That law, known as Act 10, received support from the Koch brothers and a cabal of national right-wing funders and organizations. It was imposed on all public sector workers except the police and firefighter unions that endorsed Walker and whose members are predominantly white and male.

Act 10 took away virtually all collective bargaining rights, including the right to arbitration. It left intact only the right to bargain base-wage increases up to the cost of living. The new law prohibited “agency shops,” in which all employees of a bargaining unit pay union dues. It also prohibited payroll deduction of dues. It imposed an unprecedented annual recertification requirement on public sector unions, requiring a 51 percent (not 50 percent plus one) vote of all eligible employees, counting anyone who does not vote as a “no.” Using those criteria, Walker would never have been elected.

Immediately following Act 10, Walker and the Republican-dominated state legislature made the largest cuts to public education of any state in the nation and gerrymandered state legislative districts to privilege conservative, white-populated areas of the state.

Having decimated labor law and defunded public education, Walker proceeded to expand statewide the private school voucher program that has wreaked havoc on Milwaukee, and enacted one of the nation’s most generous income tax deductions for private school tuition.

Under these conditions, public sector union membership has plummeted, staff has been reduced, and resources to lobby, organize, and influence elections have shrunk.

People familiar with Wisconsin’s progressive history—in 1959, for example, we were the first state to legalize collective bargaining for public sector workers—find these events startling. And they should. If it happened in Wisconsin, it could happen anywhere.

And it has. In New Orleans, following Katrina, unionized teachers were fired and the entire system charterized. Following Wisconsin’s lead, Tennessee abolished the right for teachers to bargain collectively. In Philadelphia, the School Reform Commission unilaterally canceled its expired contract with the teacher union. In city after city, privately run charter schools are dominating the education landscape.

Fortunately, teacher union activists across the country are revitalizing their unions and standing up to these relentless attacks. And this growing transformation of the teachers’ union movement may well be the most important force in our nation to defend and improve public schools and, in so doing, defend and improve our communities and what’s left of our democratic institutions.

The revitalization builds on the strengths of traditional “bread and butter” unionism. But it recognizes that our future depends on redefining unionism from a narrow trade union model, focused almost exclusively on protecting union members, to a broader vision that sees the future of unionized workers tied directly to the interests of the entire working class and the communities, particularly communities of color, in which we live and work.

This is a sea change for teacher unions (and other unions, too). But it’s not an easy one to make. It requires confronting racist attitudes and past practices that have marginalized people of color both inside and outside unions. It also means overcoming old habits and stagnant organizational structures that weigh down efforts to expand internal democracy and member engagement.

From Bread and Butter to Social Justice

The MTEA is a member of the National Education Association (NEA), which has a long history of being staff-dominated. In some locals, elected presidents were (and still are) just figureheads. Allan West, a national NEA staff member, memorialized this staff-run union approach in a widely distributed 1965 speech. According to West, the executive director was the one who should be the public spokesperson, develop agendas for elected executive boards, and direct most of the union’s affairs. This power structure was written into our local’s constitution, and it had profound consequences. When a member of a progressive rank-and-file caucus in Milwaukee was elected president in 1991, for example, it took him six months just to get a key to the office. For nearly a decade we pushed for a full-time release president, a proposal resisted by most professional staff.

Meanwhile, by the late 1980s and into the ’90s, teacher activists in Milwaukee were connecting with other rank-and-file teacher union activists through Rethinking Schools and the newly formed National Coalition of Education Activists (NCEA). In 1994, 29 teachers’ union activists from both the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) met at the Portland, Oregon, NCEA conference and issued a statement: “Social Justice Unionism: A Working Draft” (see sidebar, p. 18).

Social justice unionism is an organizing model that calls for a radical boost in internal union democracy and increased member participation. This contrasts to a business model that is so dependent on staff providing services that it disempowers members and concentrates power in the hands of a small group of elected leaders and/or paid staff. An organizing model, while still providing services to members, focuses on building union power at the school level in alliance with parents, community groups, and other social movements.

Three components of social justice unionism are like the legs of a stool. Unions need all three to be balanced and strong:

  • We organize around bread and butter issues.
  • We organize around teaching and learning issues to reclaim our profession and our classrooms.
  • We organize for social justice in our community and in our curriculum.

Unfortunately, few public sector unions in Wisconsin adopted this model of unionism. As long as we had an agency shop and could protect our members’ compensation and benefits, most members were happy.

We are now paying the price for defining our unions as contract bargainers and enforcers. Today, when we try to sign up members, many are aware that our collective bargaining rights have been severely limited. Often they respond, “Why should I join?” Others think we don’t even exist, as our identity has been so tightly woven to the contract.

Transforming a Local

Our challenge in Milwaukee was to transform a staff-dominated, business/service-style teachers’ union into something quite different. The local had focused narrowly on contract bargaining and enforcement, with the staff playing the role of insurance agents who would intervene on members’ behalf to solve their problems—instead of helping members organize to solve their own problems. It was a codependent relationship—members didn’t have to do much more than make a call to have their problems taken care of, and staff didn’t have to go out to do the hard work of organizing members, except for occasional mobilizations at contract time. The importance of parent/community alliances was downplayed, and the union took the attitude that it was not their responsibility—but rather the administration’s—to ensure quality education.

A few years before I was elected MTEA president, our local’s leadership agreed that the three legs of social justice unionism should guide our work. But it’s easier to agree to a principle than to change old habits and put new ideas into practice.

So when I stepped in as president of our local, the professional staff was hostile to the organizing, member-driven approach on which I was elected. I was excluded from most staff meetings and only saw the union newsletter after the staff had sent it to the printer. The 22-member elected executive board was split. There was a slim progressive majority, including several people who were elected at the same time as I was. A few people were allied with the old staff through friendship; others were scared of any change because of the uncertainties fomented by Act 10.

Within four months, other leaders and I initiated a campaign to “reimagine” our union to make it more democratic and participatory, based on a vision of social justice unionism. Key elements of our local’s “reimagine” campaign and our subsequent work include:

  1. Building strong ties and coalitions with parent, community, and civic organizations, not only on educational issues, but also on broader issues of community concern.
  2. Replacing collective bargaining with collective action. With collective bargaining limited to only base wages, we put more emphasis on organizing members to appear en masse at school board meetings, to lobby individual school board members, and to enlist parents and community members to do the same. One of our earliest victories was securing an extra $5/hour (after the first hour) for educational assistants when they “cover” a teacher’s classroom.
  3. Building our union’s capacity to reclaim our profession by becoming the leading education organization in the city and consistently promoting culturally responsive, social justice teaching.
  4. Transforming the internal dynamics within our organization to increase member and leader participation, change the role of professional staff, overhaul our communications with and among members, and encourage members to lead our work.

To help make this work possible, within six months the elected leadership decided to release two teachers to be organizers; three months later we added two additional released teachers to head up a new teaching and learning department. Eventually we also released an educational assistant organizer. A year after my election, we amended the constitution to shift certain powers from the staff to the elected leadership. A few months later, we bargained a staff contract that encouraged the professional staff that didn’t want to adapt to a new organizing vision to leave. All but one left. Our new professional staff is committed to a broader vision of unionism with an emphasis on organizing.

We did this all in an increasingly hostile, anti-labor, and anti-public school environment. State budget cuts caused substantial layoffs. Our massive mobilization of members and allies to recall Walker failed because Walker outspent his Democratic opponent seven to one, and convinced vast swaths of the white working class to vote their prejudice, not their class interests. “We don’t want Wisconsin to become another Milwaukee,” Walker said.

Social Justice—Rooted in Alliances

The strength of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) 2012 strike, under the leadership of Karen Lewis, rested in large part on their members’ connections to parent and community groups. In two other cities—Portland, Oregon, and St. Paul, Minnesota—the unions put forth a vision of “the schools our children deserve” patterned after a groundbreaking document by the CTU. Their joint educator-community mobilizations were key factors in forcing the local school districts to settle on contracts before a strike.

In Milwaukee, our main coalition work has been building Schools and Communities United, a broad coalition of nearly two dozen education and non-education groups that fights against school privatization and for concrete educational improvements within the public schools.

The coalition grew out of an earlier group, the Coalition to Stop the MPS Takeover, that—with allies on the school board and state legislature—successfully fought a Democrats for Education Reform attempt to get rid of the democratically elected Milwaukee school board. Three years after that fight, the MTEA helped revive the coalition in order to fight the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce’s legislative plan to turn Milwaukee into a New Orleans-style recovery zone.

As we organized press conferences, picket lines, and lobby days, we realized we needed a more formal organizational structure and a broader purpose. We wanted to move past reacting, being on the defensive, and appearing to be only against things. After some intense planning sessions, we renamed ourselves, created short- and long-term plans, and formalized organizational membership.

Key to the coalition’s renewal was the development of a 32-page booklet, Fulfill the Promise: The Schools and Communities Our Children Deserve. Building on the work of the CTU, our document addresses school issues and adds concerns of the broader community beyond the schoolhouse door. Specifically, we critique the return of the “New Jim Crow” to Milwaukee. The 19 groups issuing Fulfill the Promise included the NAACP, Voces de la Frontera, Centro Hispano, ACLU, Milwaukee Inner City Congregations Allied for Hope, Parents for Public Schools, Institute for Wisconsin’s Future, Wisconsin Jobs Now, 9to5, Youth Empowered in the Struggle, and AFT and NEA locals.

We released the document and eight-page summaries in English and Spanish on May 17, 2014, the 60th anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision. A march, program, and networking session attracted more than 500 people and put our coalition on the map.

Currently the coalition’s three committees focus on fighting school privatization, promoting community schools, and supporting progressive legislation. We are part of a national community schools movement that sees schools as hubs for social and health support, not only for the students of the school but also for their families and the surrounding community. The model seeks to build strong community-school ties and help empower parents and community activists.

The coalition work is difficult. All participants have other organizational priorities, making meetings and communication a challenge. As we broaden the coalition, differences in strategies and priorities emerge. This work reminds me of the words of activist/musician Bernice Johnson Reagon, of Sweet Honey in the Rock: “If you are in a coalition and you are comfortable, that coalition is not broad enough.”

Differences emerge in various ways. For example, as we’ve discussed how schools need to improve, some community members believe that a strong phonics emphasis will solve reading problems. Others see forced adherence to a rigid basal reading program that downplays literature as a key culprit. One way we have sought to bring such divergent perspectives together is by focusing on proven practices that we can all agree on—such as developmentally appropriate practices at the early childhood level.

In line with our reimagine campaign, we’ve worked hard to build coalitions beyond those focused on education. Unfortunately, for years the MTEA’s main coalition work was with the police and firefighter unions to get rid of a city residency requirement. This did not sit well with the communities of color we serve. In contrast, in the past three years, the MTEA has been a strong supporter of Voces de la Frontera and their youth group, Youth Empowered in the Struggle, standing with them for immigrant rights, for in-state tuition for undocumented high school graduates, and in solidarity with a long strike by immigrant workers at Palermo’s Pizza. We have supported a variety of other community issues, including raising the minimum wage, paid sick days, expanding healthcare coverage, voter rights, incarceration reform, and stopping unfair hiring practices at a major federal housing project. Our support ranges from financial aid to street protests, press conferences, lobbying, picket lines, and electoral work.

Although coalition work is essential for building mutual trust and creating sustainable social movements, its success will ultimately depend on our capacity to involve significant numbers of rank-and-file and community members in coalition activities that directly affect their lives.

Reclaiming Our Profession

Another essential pathway to a revitalized teachers’ union movement is organizing our members to be leaders on all K-12 educational issues. Although some locals have taken on the hard issues of teacher evaluation through peer assistance and review programs, that is only the beginning.

For us, this has meant making sure new teacher orientation and mentoring are available and of high quality. It also has meant working to sustain the quality teacher evaluation and mentoring program that was in our contract before it ended under Act 10. I tell my members that if there is a classroom down the hall or a school down the street that you would not send your own child to, then we have work to do.

In the past, too often union activists ignored curricular issues, dismissing them as the administration’s responsibilities. We failed to make sure practicing classroom teachers were intimately involved in educational innovations and initiatives. We need to become the “go-to” organizations in our communities on issues ranging from teacher development to anti-racist education to quality assessments.

At the MTEA, this has required a change in some of our priorities and rearrangement of resources. Our two full-time release directors of teaching and learning play a key role in this work. Soon after becoming president, I proposed that we set up a nonprofit organization, the Milwaukee Center for Teaching, Learning, and Public Education. The center focuses most of its attention on teaching and learning issues, but also promotes public education among parents and the community. It has a pro-public school canvassing program, funded by the school district, that goes door to door, encouraging parents to send their children to the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS).

Our teaching and learning work has focused on reclaiming our profession in three primary ways:

  1. We provide professional development and services to our members.
  2. We advocate/organize around specific demands to reclaim our classrooms and our profession.
  3. We partner with the MPS administration through labor/management committees to ensure maximum success of district initiatives and practices.

For years, many members viewed our union office (if they knew where it was) as a place to go if you were “in trouble” or had a question about insurance or retirement. A scattering of members attended committee meetings. Now our offices are bustling with multiple committee meetings, inservice trainings, book circles (for college credit), and individual help sessions on professional development plans or licensure issues. Recently, when the district failed to provide quality inservice training on student learning objectives that are a mandated part of the new state teacher evaluation system, we offered workshops that drew 150 teachers at a time. We had to schedule additional workshops once word spread. More teachers were convinced to join our union, too, because our teaching and learning services are only open to members.

Another example of our success in reclaiming our profession is in the area of early childhood education, where our teachers have been very active. Working with allies on the school board and in the community, we used collective action at board meetings and hearings, and our connections to parent and university partners to convince the MPS administration and entire school board to mandate 45 minutes of uninterrupted play in 4- and 5-year-old kindergarten classes. We also won a staggered start for all kindergartens: one third of each class attends on three separate days at the beginning of the year so that teachers, students, and parents can build better connections from day one.

Our bilingual/English language learner committee, which holds its meeting in the heart of the Latina/o community, includes teachers, community activists, and parents. We have taken up a broad range of issues and mobilizations, including convincing the school board to systematically expand bilingual education programs throughout the district.

At the school level, union activists have worked closely with parents in two key areas: school-based canvassing around issues and pro-education candidates, and organizing to remove ineffective principals.

But we have a long way to go; at times it feels like a losing battle. Each year more teaching and planning time is stolen from teachers by new initiatives and mandates, most of which are linked to technology, tests, and standards. New teachers are learning to define teaching as data collection and more data collection. The heavy workload imposed on all teachers shrinks the time and energy they can dedicate to being union activists.

With the plethora of federal and state mandates and the datatization of our culture, even the best-intentioned school boards and principals balk at promoting policies that support the craft of teaching.

It’s clear to me that what is necessary is a national movement led by activists at the local, state, and national levels within the AFT and NEA—in alliance with parents, students, and community groups—to take back our classrooms and our profession.

Promoting Social Justice Teaching

A key, but less talked about, aspect of social justice unionism is promoting social justice content in our curriculum. We need to fight for curriculum that is anti-racist, pro-justice and that prepares our students for the civic and ecological challenges ahead.

It’s important for teacher unions to promote social justice in the classroom for two main reasons: First, it educates students—the future members of society—in how to be active, critical participants in that society. Second, it educates teachers. Too many teachers don’t know the real people’s history of our nation. And that includes labor history. Many years ago, I interviewed the late historian Howard Zinn, who said, “Teachers not only need to be strong unionists, but they have to be teachers of unionism.” The more successful we are in promoting social justice teaching among our members, the greater will be their capacity and willingness to be active in our broader political campaigns.

To that end, we have hosted workshops and other activities. For example, our book circles have read Lisa Delpit’s Multiplication Is for White People. Teacher advisors to Youth Empowered in the Struggle participated in a role play workshop on the U.S.-Mexican border.

Promoting social justice teaching also includes organizing against its opposite—reactionary curriculum policies and standards promoted by school boards, state textbook adoption committees, or publicly funded voucher or privately run charter schools.

A Final Challenge

With the Wisconsin state legislature dominated by right-wing Republicans waiting to use any perceived or real weakness in public schools as an excuse to accelerate their school privatization schemes, we must proceed with caution in our public criticism of and organizing around school district policies.

On the one hand, we need to fight to improve our public schools by organizing our members and allies to speak out against a variety of problems, including poorly rolled-out initiatives; large class sizes; lack of music, art, physical education, counselors, and librarians; restrictive curriculum mandates; and rogue principals. On the other hand, speaking out can play into the hands of the privatizers as they seek to expand privately run charters in what is already the nation’s largest publicly funded private school voucher program.

This dilemma forces us to carefully consider our approach at the district level. We use a variety of tactics, including participation on labor/management committees, lobbying school board members, and balancing mass mobilizations with the threat of mass mobilizations. In the end, we recognize a key element in fighting privatization is to improve our public schools.

A Social Movement for Educational Justice

And that’s a hard thing to do in face of the corporate shit storm that has engulfed much of public education over the past few decades. But, just as I have been amazed at the resilience of some of my most beleaguered students, so, too, am I heartened by the increasing number of teacher, student, and community activists organizing for educational justice.
Rank-and-file union members and growing numbers of union leaders recognize the need for new approaches to fight attacks on public schools and our profession. In addition to the work in Milwaukee, Chicago, Portland, and St. Paul, rank-and-file caucuses and local leaders in many areas of the country are having increased success moving their unions toward a social justice, member-based stance.

In Los Angeles, an activist caucus, Union Power, won leadership of the United Teachers Los Angeles, the second largest teacher local in the country. The Union Power slate, headed by Alex Caputo-Pearl, has an organizing vision for their union. They have worked with parents fighting school cuts and recognize the importance of teacher-community alliances.

In Massachusetts, Barbara Madeloni, a leader of the University of Massachusetts EdTPA boycott (see “Stanford/Pearson Test for New Teachers Draws Fire,” winter 2012-13), was elected president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association last May. She ran with the Educators for a Democratic Union caucus and promises to mobilize teachers in the struggle against high-stakes standardized testing.

On the national level, the sentiments and actions of members attending recent AFT and NEA conventions are more militant and focused on building organizing capacity internally and in alliance with other groups to fight the corporate reformers, obsessive testing, and privatization. The national “days of action” of the recently formed Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools have encouraged locals to build community coalitions and take an activist approach to fighting privatization and promoting public school-based improvements.

Will it be enough, soon enough? Will unions be able to transform themselves to go beyond their past limitations, reclaim our profession, and participate in the broader social justice movements? Will progressive union leadership and caucuses be able to convince recalcitrant members and staff stuck in an untenable past?

Those are the questions activists will answer in the next few years as we organize for social justice in our classrooms, our schools, our unions, and our communities.

A Call to Education Activists

In August 1994, at an institute sponsored by the National Coalition of Education Activists, grassroots teachers’ union activists affiliated with both the NEA and AFT developed a statement: “Social Justice Unionism: A Call to Education Activists.” Here are the key components. The full statement is available at rethinkingschools.org/special_reports/union/sjun.shtml. Social justice unionism retains the best of traditional unionism, borrows from what has been called “professional unionism,” and is informed by a broader concept of our members’ self-interests and by a deeper social vision. Social justice unionism should:

  1. Defend the rights of its members while fighting for the rights and needs of the broader community and students.
  2. Recognize that the parents and neighbors of our students are key allies, and build strategic alliances with parents, labor unions, and community groups.
  3. Fully involve rank-and-file members in running the union and initiate widespread discussion on how education unions should respond to the crises in education and society.
  4. Put teachers and others who work in classrooms at the center of school reform agendas, ensuring that they take ownership of reform initiatives.
  5. Encourage those who work with children to use methods of instruction and curricula that will promote racial and gender equity, combat racism and prejudice, encourage critical thinking about our society’s problems, and nurture an active, reflective citizenry that is committed to real democracy and social and economic justice.
  6. Forcefully advocate for a radical restructuring of American education.
  7. Aggressively educate and mobilize its membership to fight for social justice in all areas of society.

Bob Peterson (bob.e.peterson@gmail.com), a 5th-grade teacher in the Milwaukee Public Schools, is currently president of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association. With Michael Charney, he co-edited Transforming Teacher Unions: Fighting for Better Schools and Social Justice (Rethinking Schools, 1999).