A Teachable Moment

Former local teacher union pesident Morty Rosenfeld periodically attempts to make sense of the increasingly senseless world of public education.

Remembering

For years, I’ve counseled against using union war stories to attempt to acculturate new members to the union cause. Yet, that’s exactly what I found myself doing on Saturday. Along with my friend Ken Ulric, a former union president too, I met with three groups of Long Island union representatives to talk about the early days of teacher unionism on Long Island. These representatives had spent their morning listening to and questioning presenters on the problems related to an impending decision in the Janus Case, an expected Supreme Court decision that will abridge public sector unions’ right to collect agency fees and potentially requiring them to re-sign members up each year.

Ken and I had a very good time recalling the birth of our movement. Comments from the audience seemed to suggest that they found our remembrances of things past interesting. Yet in the end, I find myself depressed by the experience and left wondering how it is that a movement that was birthed by such creative spirit and energy could have decayed to the point where the threat of the loss of agency fee is seen to pose an existential threat to our organizations.

Clear to me from talking to some of the workshop participants is that union militancy today is wearing a tee shirt with a union message on it, turning out to a meeting of a board of education or filing a grievance. The idea of asserting our collective power to advance our union agenda appears to be unthinkable. I’m not even sure we have an agenda beyond organizational survival. When I expressed the belief that school principals serve at the pleasure of the staff in the building, workshop participants looked at me as though I were joking. When I went on to explain that I had organized numbers of successful campaigns to rid our district of administrators who treated us badly, I had the distinct impression that many in the audience thought I was fabricating a union tale. No wonder we have contracts that remain unsettled six, eight even ten years. No wonder that signing members up each year is seen as a herculean task, one doomed to significant failure.

I hope I’m wrong about the state of our movement. I hope the Janus Case will serve as a challenge to a new generation of public sector unionists who will meet the challenge head on and emerge from it with a renewed sense of their power to shape their work-life. I hope we can go from a talking union to one of direct action, one in which members are willing to struggle and fight not only to preserve what we have won but to reclaim their right to participate in determining the quality of their time at work.

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