The anger seething within the ranks of New York teachers over the recent deal on teacher evaluation between our state union, the State Education Department and our anti-labor governor is both heartening and ominous. For the first time in many years, I’m encouraged to think that our union movement may be in the process of rekindling the militancy of its youth, when teachers boldly demanded to be treated with respect, when they felt entitled to a professional status appropriate to their education and responsibilities. Today, with more and more of our teachers working to the rhythms of corporate created programs, with their value as educators to be determined in large measure by the their students’ results on tests of very dubious quality made by the same corporations, they again hunger to be treated with respect and to fight to restore their professional dignity, A new generation of teachers may be beginning to see that for too long they have been lulled into believing that bureaucratic, service oriented unionism married to conventional political action could provide all that they needed. They are beginning to see, like the pioneers of our movement before them, that organizing for direct action is a much more powerful alternative.
Yet, we must be aware that the anger that may spark a resurgence of union militancy can just as easily turn within. That which may energize and organize us can just as readily divide us and render us impotent. I have already heard too much talk about our leaders “selling us out” and threats to leave our state and national organizations. While I can viscerally feel the anger that motivates such intemperate language, I know all too well that we must find the way to resolve our internal policy, strategic and tactical differences because deep down we all realize that to win the battles before us will require greater solidarity, stronger commitment and more resources harnessed to imaginative leadership.
I’m optimistic that we will recapture that fighting spirit that launched our movement. I believe we can and should have a vigorous internal debate about the direction of our movement. I trust that our leaders won’t confuse debate with division and that union members will not impute nefarious motive to leaders with whom they differ. I believe that while we will always have our family differences, after all of the internal debate is over, we will close ranks behind a democratically determined course of action to save public education and our professional dignity.