Union Power for Quality Schools

By Mark Simon

Illustrator: Cincinnati Federation of Teachers

Tom Mooney speaking at a “Better Schools for a Better Future” press conference.
Photo: Cincinnati Federation of Teachers

At the time of his death, Tom Mooney and I and a handful of teacher unionists were building the Institute for Teacher Union Leadership (ITUL), to nurture leadership skills for progressive teacher unionism. The ITUL planning team was to meet the following Saturday in Washington, D.C., to map our next steps. Instead, we traveled to Cincinnati to attend the memorial to Tom’s life, cut short.

While planning the ITUL gathering, Tom had emailed me to make sure the group would have a celebratory dinner together Friday night. What made Tom so irresistible is how hard he worked during the day and how hard he played at night. He had close friendships across the country and throughout the world, from Australia to Europe, South America, and Africa.

Tom’s vision integrated the urgency of improving teaching and learning with the often-unrealized power of unions to speak for the best professional practice of teachers. He did not believe that unions had to choose between a traditional “bread and butter” emphasis and professional concerns about the quality of teaching. Tom taught us that advocating solutions that improve student learning earn unions credibility and better pay. Progressive union leadership means mastering economic and professional agendas, while maintaining a broad social justice vision. Tom showed us that it also required mastering the nitty-gritty details of school budgets, funding sources, and alternative compensation proposals so that the union president is the smartest one in the room.

I’d known Tom since our time together at Antioch College. We traveled the same path into teaching and union leadership and championing rather than fighting education reform. I stole his ideas with sincere flattery, and he used me as a sounding board. He was the best of generals and a fine street fighter.

Most important, he had a vision of schooling centered on quality, professional teaching. He looked to history and to other countries to teach us that knee-jerk industrial unionism made less sense than a vision that drew from craft unions and the professions. Why shouldn’t teachers and their organization be the guardians of quality? Why shouldn’t the best teachers be paid more? Why shouldn’t the union champion meaningful accountability?

Tom also believed in dialogue even with those with whom he profoundly disagreed. I wasn’t surprised that one of the first public epitaphs of respect for Tom came from his arch-enemies at the pro-privatization Fordham Foundation.

Intensely curious, whenever Tom arrived in a new town he always wanted to find out the most exciting thing
going on. Following Tom late at night in Harare, Zimbabwe, I once ended up about 20 miles outside of town by cab, down a dirt street in a seedy motel, the only white people packed into a tiny room, dancing and listening to a particularly hot, but obscure band.

He identified with his revolutionary Irish heritage and would lead us to the best Irish bar in any American town. This past July in Cambridge, when others went to bed after a full day of meetings, Tom suggested a drink at the Plough and the Stars on Mass Ave. He lit on a frequent topic: his fallback life plan to start a bed-and-breakfast in Jamaica. I never doubted that I’d either see Tom as president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) or I’d be visiting his Jamaican B&B.

Tom enjoyed organizing gatherings as the family patriarch, and his family and work nurtured each other. A New York Times article depicting his union organizer son Ruairi Rhodes’ arrest at a demonstration in Houston last year was one of Tom’s proudest moments. Tom’s wife Debbie Schneider, former head of 9 to 5, now leads the Service Employees International Union’s international work. His first wife, Ginger Rhodes, a school principal and former school board member in Cincinnati, remained a friend and comrade. Tom’s daughter, Lielah Mooney, is in college, preparing for work in international relations. Even his mom, Marguerite Mooney, was a fixture at AFT meetings. The whole family thrived off the vision of social change that Tom made so inviting.

It’s hard to believe that after just 52 years, Tom’s voice and his wild plans will stop. Few of us could keep up Tom’s pace. But he taught us well. Within the teacher union movement, his impact, his leadership example — and the memories of his friendship — will live on.

Mark Simon is past president of the Montgomery County Education Association (NEA) in Maryland, and currently directs the Institute for Teacher Union Leadership.