Letters About “Which Side Are You On?”

Rethinking Schools received a number of responses to “Which Side Are You On?” by Bob Peterson (Vol. 8 #1), in which he discusses the role of teacher unions and his advocacy of “social justice” unionism that both defends the rights of members and also advocates for the needs of students and the broader community. Following are excerpts from the responses.

Teachers Must Assume Reponsibility

I’d like to thank Bob Peterson for the courage with which he tackled some very delicate issues involving teacher unionism and the responsibility of teachers and their organizations for the current traumas of public education. My own experience with teachers unions has been complex and often painful. I’ve been working in public education for the past 30 years — sometimes within school systems, sometimes on the margins, and even at times in opposition to those systems. In every case I have been in what can only be described as the belly of the beast.

There has been a massive failure of public schools to educate poor children and children of color. Most public schools are boring, lifeless places that serve a few students well, push most through, and get rid of or stigmatize students who become identified as “problems.” Teachers or schools that try to change these conditions are often harassed by colleagues or their own unions. It has often felt to me as if teacher unions would rather go down and take public education with them than change old but ineffectual habits of work. This is not dissimilar to problems industrial and public service unions are facing throughout the country.

To me the question of who initiates change and assumes responsibility for failure — and credit for success — is at the core of many of the problems in education. I began teaching fifth grade in the New York City public schools in 1961. That same year I was involved in a teachers strike that closed the system down. The strike was as much for working conditions as for salary increases, and our school chapter considered that negotiating over conditions of teaching, supplies, control over curriculum, and self-accountability were as important as salary increases. The strike was won, union dues check-off was approved, and the membership of the United Federation of Teachers went from approximately 5,000 to about 37,000 in a month. Along with the increase in membership went abandonment of teaching issues as union issues and a thorough change in the constitution and politics of the union’s delegate assembly.

Money and benefits were the obsession of the leadership and staff of the union, which had become, and remains, more politically conservative than much of its membership. They were and still are concerned almost exclusively with the maintenance of power rather than the quality and nature of the work performed by teachers and our relationships with the communities we are paid to serve.

In 1966 I worked for the IS 210 planning board and crossed union picket lines in support of community control of schools that were racist and failing the children they were created to serve. It was very difficult since I come from a union family and I was breaking the pledge. The struggle between loyalty to the union and caring for the children and their parents makes union issues in education distinctly different from those in industries that produce goods and products.

In California, from 1968 to 1971 I was a teacher and principal of a public alternative school that functioned under a contract with the Berkeley Unified School District. Our students received Berkeley High School diplomas. The arrangement was irregular, but was created with the cooperation of the school board and the covert support of the union because it was publicly acknowledged that the high school was not serving all of its students. At that time union members were interested in finding new ways to define who can teach, who controls curriculum and evaluation, and how to determine working conditions and union membership in ways that fit different structures of teaching and learning. These are precisely the issues Bob Peterson calls upon us to make central within unions and he’s right.

From the early 1960s to today, through the vehicle of freedom schools, boycotts, and union activism, voices advocating decency and equity in education have constantly insisted upon public education as a necessary component of a hopeful and democratic society. It is probably true that all of these efforts have reached no more than 10% of the public schools, most of which have yielded to bureaucratic subversion, fatigue, conservative attack, university-based schemes, and administrative and collegial hostility. The central point, however, is that there has been and is, within public education, a continuing force for improvement of free education, equity, and empowerment for all children. This tradition of struggle within public education represents a commitment to the widest possible access to learning. It must be central to the very idea of teacher unionism, which should be leading the school reform movements rather than taking orders from legislators, academics, corporations, or the media. This can only be done with a social vision for the teacher unions, one that re-examines how and what we teach instead of pushing off those problems we have created onto the community, the family, the child, the political climate, and whatever else we can find to blame for the fact that as teachers we do not have active control of the educational process and are not willing to accept responsibility for our results.

–Herbert Kohl.

[Kohl’s latest book on education is, “I Won’t Learn From You” and Other Thoughts on Creative Maladjustment (New Press)]

Divided We All Fall

We live in a paradoxical era. The public sector, and even the notion of public service is under attack by the political right. The religion of privatization is spreading, even among otherwise progressive people. The notion of so-called “free market” solutions to fundamental economic and social problems has led all layers of government, local, state and federal, to question the very concept of a public sector.

In this mix, public sector unions, which experienced a rapid period of growth in the 1960s and 1970s, have come under attack. In defending the gains made by their members, they are viewed as archaic and otherwise obstructive to progress. Public sector unions, whether of teachers or sanitation workers, get unsatisfactory media coverage, if they get any coverage at all. Added to this is the interesting fact that the public sector has become perhaps the single most important employer of African-Americans, making it possible for at least some African-American workers to achieve a decent living standard.

Yet there exists a high degree of paralysis among many public sector unions. Communities of color, which should be their allies, are often viewed with a degree of hostility. The communities themselves often view the unions with great suspicion. This fundamental clash is at the heart of the crisis over the future of public sector unions.

Put another way, I would pose this question: do public sector unions, whether of teachers, office workers, or sewage treatment workers, exist as special interest organizations? Or, in the alternative, do they exist to represent their members while at the same time defending the need and role of a public sector that serves all people?

Posed in those terms, most readers would probably gravitate toward the latter. But the practice has all too often been that of the former.

Further, a defense of the public sector should mean a defense or assertion of the need for equity in the public sector. It should mean the assurance that particularly those who have been historically disenfranchised should receive equal access to and quality services from government. It should mean, in other words, that government serves all, not just those able to pay the most.

If defense of the public sector is to be the clarion call of our unions as we proceed into the Ô90s, we must adjust the relationship of the union to the community. If the general public perceives unions to be defending the narrow interests of their members, we are moving into an arena in which we cannot win.

There is an alternative: the politics of the united front. A united front must be built around defense of the public sector. In order to build a real alliance with community groups, unions cannot articulate a program of more of the same. There are fundamental problems with the public sector, which have a particular impact on communities of color. The issue of disenfranchisement from decision-making and the need for genuine community input is probably one of the most critical features that would need to be addressed as part of a united front.

In order to be successful, this move must be pro-active rather than reactive. It must precede and follow contract negotiation time, and cannot be a cynical tactic pulled out when it is convenient and quickly dismissed when it no longer serves union interests. Properly implemented, a united front could be the basis for both the reconstruction of public sector unionism and defense of the public sector in general.

–Bill Fletcher, Jr.

[Fletcher is Director of Education for the Service Employees International Union.]

Arrogant Criticism of Unions

I find that often a holier-than-thou arrogance permeates criticism of teacher unions. There is the implication that progressives understand intimately the inner workings of a teacher union, the ease (or, in my opinion, difficulty) of establishing policy and direction in an organization whose members hold widely varying views, and the relationship between staff and members.

Consider the issue of democracy and the paid staff (of which, admittedly, I am one). If labor relations in our schools ever resembled the quaint notion of rank-and-file teachers sitting down with dedicated administrators to work out the best possible contract for teachers, students, and the school as a whole (and I doubt this ever was the norm), today’s negotiations and contract administration certainly are not this simple.

Collective bargaining and the administration of contracts (i.e., the protection of teacher rights) is a complex business, for which school districts hire high-priced attorneys, labor relations consultants, and even, in some cases, union-busting firms. In many situations, the goal of these hired guns is to drive down teacher salaries and benefits to the lowest level and to deprive teachers of every right not clearly enshrined in legislation or a labor contract.

Fighting these management cronies is a difficult job, done on many fronts: The school building level, the governance (i.e., school board) level, the regional level, and the state level. Working together in this fight are rank-and-file teachers, teacher union leaders (local, regional, state, and national), and paid staff.

Both teacher unions and progressives alike have fought (and continue to fight) to ensure that those who teach and counsel our children are well-trained and expert at their roles. Why shouldn’t those who fight alongside teachers for better pay, more professional responsibility and job rights, and greater respect similarly be well-trained experts in the complex field of labor relations? Even if this means hiring the dreaded paid staff of expert negotiators, well-educated researchers, and committed labor attorneys who work for teacher unions.

I also think it is important to recognize that well over three million individuals work within our public schools educating our children.

It is time progressives and conservatives alike stopped expecting the men and women whose lives are dedicated to this function, our public school educators, to sacrifice their rights and interests as working people to any end, whether it be the shortsighted dogma of lower taxes or the ideal of quality education for all.

–Bruce P. Merenstein

[Assistant Director of Research, Pennsylvania State Education Association. Organizational affiliation for identification purposes only.]

Unions Are Inherently Progressive

Bob Peterson sees unions as having “a dual nature” — “on the one hand protecting the needs of poor and working people and on the other undercutting the interests of some of those very people.” He cites several examples of exclusionary practices by unions as examples of this duality.

As opposed to this view of unions as having a dual nature, I would argue unions are fundamentally progressive organizations because they represent attempts on the part of working people to organize and improve their conditions of life.

In a broad historical sense the attempts of teachers and school employees to organize unions and improve their salaries, working conditions and professional status is, in and of itself, an important facet of the overall struggle to upgrade the quality of education.

Competitive teacher salaries, improved physical conditions, more time for planning, and lower class size are all historic demands of teachers that bear centrally on the quality of education. This is especially clear in the inner cities where the lack of adequate funding has made progress in these areas difficult at best.

Certainly advocacy of these demands is not sufficient to win the confidence of the community, but it does represent a foundation on which we can begin to build. What is disturbing about Peterson’s article is that he seems to be counterpoising these demands to “social justice” unionism. He says, “Teacher unions must confront the dual nature of unionism and take a stand. They must not only work to defend the rights of their members, but must also advocate for the needs of the broader community …” This is a false distinction. In the main, interests of school employees, as articulated by the unions, are in the interest of the broader community.

–Ron Whitehorne

[Co-chair, Community Outreach Committee, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, AFT Local #3]

Concentrate On the Grass-Roots

I have been on the executive board of our union in some elected capacity for the past 20 years and I am proud of the work we have done in bargaining for better schools. Yet it is also clear to me that what we were able to accomplish through bargaining is necessary but has not proven sufficient to impact the lives and futures of our students. One key issue I would like to address briefly in this letter is the need for concentrating efforts at the school level. Unless there is a core of rank-and-file teachers who consciously understand why we must change schools, true reform will never become a reality.

In order to build that core, we must have stronger teacher leadership within each building and we must have examples of schools that work to inspire teachers, students, and parents, and community. And unions must help build this new layer of teacher leadership at the school level. Our union, for example, created and negotiated for the right to have a Career-in-Teaching Program. In the program teachers are categorized into intern, resident, career, and lead teachers. A rigorous credentialing process based in peer appraisal was put in place and a new teacher leadership identified in each building. The program has grown and we now have 271 lead teachers in the district.

Unions can best support the movement for better, more equitable education by supporting building- and classroom-level leadership and reform. I have invested four years of concentrated work on this project because I have come to understand that real reform comes classroom by classroom. It requires inspiring models and continual growth in understanding on the part of the rank and file, and is pushed forward by progressive union leadership which creates new structures to support change. When we can create schools in urban neighborhoods where students learn important things and teachers want to work there, we have laid the basis for real reform — not just empty talk of reform.

–Diana Porter

[Educational Policy Chairperson of the CFT, Cincinnati]

How My Local Defined the “New Unionism”

When the NEA became a union and, along with the AFT, championed collective bargaining in the late 1960’s, both organizations imported the narrow, industrial model of unionism, relatively unquestioned. Bob Peterson is right. That narrow approach to unionism needs to be changed, not because what teacher unions have been doing all these years is wrong, but rather because it’s incomplete. Unfortunately, Peterson’s critique mistakes bad unionism for unionism in general. Unless the distinction is clarified, we will set back the effort to create strong union/community alliances at the moment when we need each other most.

Marjorie Murphy points out, in her excellent book Blackboard Unions, that teacher unions have vacillated between a militant economic focus, and a conservative “professionalism.” The former risked abandoning communities and children. The later abandoned the economic interests of teachers. It seems to me that the history of the teacher unions has created a false dichotomy. More important, this false dichotomy has left the child-centered approach to education to be claimed by the conservative movement, to which it has no right to a claim. The task is to create militant, child-centered, social justice unions, capable of building a broad movement for an expanded societal commitment to public education.

In my experience, as president of NEA’s third largest local for six years, and on the NEA Board of Directors for the past four years, union locals and national organizations are incredibly responsive to the democratic process. Within the NEA there is much interest and discussion about “the new unionism” these days, because that’s where our more thoughtful and our younger members want us to be. There is a tremendous need for progressive activists to help give definition to what the “new unionism” stands for.

In the case of my local, we began when a dozen of us were elected as new leadership back in 1985. We set out to radically change the expectations our members had of the union, to create a much more democratically involved and active membership, and to reach out to build strong, long-term alliances with the community. The key to a socially conscious and effective union, we reasoned, was to put our rank-and-file members in contact with the community.

We revamped our internal publications to focus on our “member organizing” and “community outreach” message. We founded a broad “Community Coalition for the Schools”. We launched a public relations campaign that explained our bargaining issues as being in the community’s interest. To involve teacher members in dialogue with the community and not just official union spokespeople, we scheduled community forums at 21 simultaneous locations where teacher discussion leaders used our home grown slide show that focused on issues of concern to our members and parents. This was not to be a one night event, but the beginning of a growing orientation, we hoped, of our membership outward, to the community.

We also created a massive training program for our members in everything from multicultural education, to un-tracking and the need to teach in new ways, to empowerment of teachers and parents in decision making at the school level. We turned our office into a conference center. We initiated a site-based-decision-making effort in which we, and parents, and education support employees came to the table as equal partners. We got the school system to pilot the site-based program.

Our accomplishments between 1985 and 1990 fell short of our goals. Our community alliance-building was never able to overcome a fear on the part of the organized parents of getting too close to the union. Also, the administration proved to be much more self-satisfied and resistant to change than we had anticipated. As a result, when lack of support at the top turned the site based decision making program into a farce, we pulled out. Most importantly, it’s never clear how much of an impact we’re having on the consciousness of our 7,000 members beyond the 200-300 who are very involved.

Nevertheless, after five years of successful contracts, reasonably effective community alliances, and a new pride among teachers in their collective voice, we entered the 90’s like the rest of the country, facing much more daunting obstacles to continued progress. Three obstacles have dampened our effectiveness. First, budget cutbacks in the past four years have pitted the union against some of our natural allies in the community, including some parents, and has kept us preoccupied with defensive battles against tax cut referenda. Second, the austerity that budget cuts have created in the past four years has made experimentation difficult and has left the teachers demoralized. Third, the school system bureaucracy has proved much more resistant to change than we had anticipated.

At this point, in 1994, we’re a good union, but we and our students feel under attack. The new political and fiscal climate is making us take stock of what it’s going to take to carry through on our vision. We can’t stay as we are. We will either sink back into a maintenance mode, handling grievances and going through the motions of bargaining, or we will redefine ourselves again as an educational leader local.

If a bold “new union” approach is taken, then we will need thoughtful, creative and inspiring elected union leadership like never before. The union leadership will have to speak to the issues that concern the public, and not just those that concern our members. In an era when public education is under attack, the union will have to stand for real solutions to the dilemmas that public schools face.

–Mark Simon.

[Simon, in addition to the positions cited above, is a high school social studies teacher in Montgomery County, Md.]