A Rethinking Schools Editorial

Delegates to the two national teacher conventions may make history this summer and decide to unite into one big union. If so, the new union will become the largest union in the nation’s history.

Such a merger could be an enormous step forward. Most important, it will provide a valuable opportunity to rethink the purposes and goals of teacher unionism.

The merger vote will be taken in July at the conventions of the 2.4 million-member National Education Association (NEA) and the 950,000-member American Federation of Teachers (AFT). One clear advantage of merger is the increased strength brought by greater numbers and resources. A new organization also has the potential to combine the best features of the two existing unions. For example, the AFT has demonstrated an openness to take risks with potentially valuable innovations such as career ladders and peer review programs. The NEA has been sensitive to representation from people of color and has played an important role in promoting progressive social legislation at the national level.

There are dangers as well. Both the NEA and AFT have historically shared two weaknesses:

  • A failure to consistently promote educational equality for all children, particularly children of color.
  • An inability to consistently nurture democratic participation among the membership.

As Rethinking Schools has argued in the past, the first of these weaknesses should be addressed by forging a new unionism which incorporates a strong commitment to social justice. Such a perspective would build on the strengths of the past, militantly defending the wages, benefits, and working conditions of teachers. But it would also aggressively fight for children and for school reform. Teachers must recognize that their long-term interests are intimately tied to the well-being of children and families, many of whom are imperiled by an increasingly stratified economic system. “Social justice unionism” would fight for policies that confront class, race, and gender inequality within schools. It would link education to social reforms that target problems such as poverty and discrimination. It would recognize the role of teachers, both individually and collectively, in promoting a more democratic society. It would help teachers build bridges to their indispensable allies — parents and community members who believe that all children can achieve and that the assaults on the very concept of a public education system must be defeated.

The second weakness — lack of democratic participation — can begin to be addressed through the merger process itself. Teachers should be fully engaged in discussions on what the new organization should stand for and how it should operate. Such an effort should not be designed just to garner rank-and-file support for a new organization or to ratify the policies of the leadership. Its goal should be widespread discussion of both the principles of the new organization and new internal practices which can give rank-and-file teachers a decisive voice.

A grass-roots, democratic process won’t be easy. There are habitual practices in both organizations that discourage rank-and-file participation. In the AFT, leaders appear at times to be elected for life. In the NEA, where elected leaders usually have term limits, the hired staff can become bastions of bureaucracy. In both organizations, there are locals run by small cliques. Add the fact that many teachers are too busy, overwhelmed, or politically uninvolved to affect the business of their union and you end up perpetuating the status quo.

This is not to disparage the efforts of unionists in either organization. Together the NEA and the AFT have talented staffs, dedicated activists, and valuable traditions. Creating a new organization provides a unique opportunity to preserve and amplify existing strengths while addressing fundamental problems.

History is in the making. The question is whether the unity process ends up producing a larger organization burdened by old inadequacies, or opens a new chapter in teacher unionism that changes the lives of children, teachers, and communities.