Letters to the Editor 30.2

Response to “A Revitalized Teacher Union Movement”

Rethinking Schools included an article by Bob Peterson entitled “A Revitalized Teacher Union Movement: Reflections from the Field” (winter 2014-15). There are significant misrepresentations in Peterson’s article.

Wisconsin’s Act 10, effective June 29, 2011, (or upon expiration of existing labor agreements), was devastating to Wisconsin’s public sector unions. It essentially eliminated collective bargaining, prohibited unions from taking disputes to a neutral though binding arbitration, and barred authorized dues deductions from member paychecks. We lost rights that we had for decades.

It was clearly understood by staff and elected officers that the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association (MTEA) needed to evolve in response and to involve members in new ways. In his article Peterson depicts himself as a visionary and the MTEA staff as unable to grasp or respond to the significance of these changes. This is untrue and insulting. Moving the union beyond Act 10 realities was a topic of ongoing strategizing and planning, of which Peterson was a regular part.

Peterson’s description of the union, prior to Act 10, as one that limited itself to “bread-and-butter” issues, is inaccurate. Although we had many proud accomplishments in this area, there was also a strong tradition of involvement in issues of quality education through mentor programs for new and struggling teachers, workshops and training, and effective labor management committees. These all predated Peterson’s tenure as president.

Rather than work with the existing MTEA staff to design a progressive future for the MTEA, Peterson presented staff with an ultimatum in July 2012, which was to either resign immediately or lose health insurance benefits in retirement (a benefit the teachers and Peterson still enjoy). We did not resign due to an inability to embrace change as Peterson claims. We resigned because we could not afford to lose benefits for which we had worked for years. That was the choice we were given. Peterson acted toward the MTEA staff employees in a manner no different than the heartlessness he would criticize in an anti-union employer. This was a case of “do as I say, not as I do.”

Peterson’s misrepresentations of the MTEA staff are untrue and damaging to our reputations with MTEA members and the broader labor community.

We remain committed to the labor movement.

Nancy Costello,
former president of the United Association of Employees (the MTEA staff union)

Bob Peterson responds:

Nancy Costello’s letter underscores the differences in our understanding of the realities facing teacher unions, particularly in Wisconsin following Gov. Walker’s decimation of collective bargaining. I urge readers to read my article for a full discussion of these differences.

I never doubted the commitment of former MTEA staff to the labor movement. As I described in my article, however, I believed their approach followed outdated paradigms based on a service/business union model.

As president, I and other newly elected leaders embraced a vision grounded in activism, democracy, and social justice. Key components included member organizing, community outreach, building alliances —especially with parents and communities of color — and a focus on improving teaching and learning.

In the past, these components had not been priorities for the union staff. After Act 10, we needed a fundamentally new vision, not only to better serve our members and Milwaukee students and communities, but also to survive.

Traditional bread-and-butter issues are important, and always will be. But during my tenure, I articulated a model of teacher unionism that was also committed to union democracy, member leadership, community alliances, social justice, and anti-racism. In this era of privatization and teacher bashing, we need to reclaim our classrooms, our profession, and our communities.

Increasingly, rank-and-file teachers, elected leaders, and union staff are recognizing that the service/business model of teacher unionism does not respond to the challenges we face today. New leadership in teacher unions across the country have confronted similar challenges. They, too, have moved to a more democratic, social justice, organizing model.

Nancy Costello and I have a fundamental disagreement about the kind of teacher unionism we needed to build in Milwaukee—and build quickly. That fundamental disagreement has led to different interpretations about the MTEA staff’s decision to leave after my election. It’s impossible to review these details in a brief letter. However, the fact that I was overwhelmingly re-elected as president of MTEA indicates that our members understood the urgency of charting a new course.