A Teachable Moment

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

Union Communications

Last weekend, I answered a tweet by AFT President Randi Weingarten in which she expressed relief that Bill Gates was not abandoning his public education philanthropy. My response was to observe that Gates has had a profoundly pernicious influence on public education. In a tweet of my own, I further observed that the leadership of the NEA and AFT just don’t understand the negative impact Gates has had on the lives of teachers and students as they attempted to accommodate to a series of ill-fated reforms birth by his billions.

That experience reminded me that I had not looked at the webpages of either national education union in a long time. I monitor them from time to time hoping to find some evidence that either organization understands what is happening to the teaching profession. One would think that in an environment in which U.S. teachers are severely underpaid in so many areas that there would be some evidence of a campaign to improve those miserable salaries. One would think that national unions would be talking about the staggering workloads too many teachers bear. One would expect national teacher labor unions to be hammering away at the data driven teacher evaluation schemes that cheapen the work of teaching and rob students of a meaningful education. One would hope to find a consistent, focused critique of the poisonous effect testing is having on public education.

I could go on and on about the kind of content that might appeal to teachers. I can’t imagine that too many find anything of interest in the current offerings. It’s hard to imagine a young high school teacher, carrying a student load of 150 students, working two extra jobs to support his family finding any hope in these union communications for a brighter future. There is no discernible connection between the communications of our national unions and their leaders and what is happening day to day in the classrooms of America’s public schools.

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Loraine Rubin

On Sunday, I joined with other NYSUT colleagues to say goodbye to Loraine Rubin, a pioneer in the teacher labor movement on Long Island who died the day before at almost 95. Lorraine was the wife of another pioneer, Paul Rubin, the local president I succeeded in Plainview-Old-Bethpage. Loraine was a leader of that brave group of teachers across Long Island who in the 1960s declared they had had enough of the lousy wages, working conditions and disrespect for their needs and decided to build unions to gain some power for themselves. Speaker after speaker at her memorial ceremony talked about how Loraine’s fortitude and courage inspired them to become union activists.

My relationship with Loraine was a strange one, but one that left me with profound respect for her knowledge, courage and commitment to the cause of unionism and progressive politics in general. It was at first awkward in that I ran for president of my local against Paul Rubin and won. When he passed away, our local set up a scholarship fund in his name and invited Loraine to join us in the process of selecting the recipients. It was at these meetings that I began to get to know her. It was also a time when a central focus of my union work was aimed at bringing about a merger of NEA/New York and NYSUT, a cause that Loraine shared with me. Without ever addressing the politics that caused me to run against her husband, without ever an unkind word, she began to call me from time to time to offer advice on what I was doing, suggesting contacts I might make with sympatric NYSUT people, questioning me about articles I had written.

I came to learn that her devotion to our mutual cause transcended any personal issues she might have had. There were important issues to be dealt with of much greater significance than the battles I had fought with her husband. After all, those battles were about competing visions of how to make our union stronger and more effective. I have always been attracted to union work’s call to something greater than oneself. Loraine heard that call until her last breath.

Our mutual friend Ken Ulric told a story about literally the last hours of her life. Moved to a hospice, Loraine knew her days were limited. Whatever time and energy she had left, it was still important to her that they counted for something. Knowing that there was a special election to fill a vacant assembly seat in her district, she summoned Ken to the hospital to get him to help her get an absentee ballot. After all, the Democrats had a NYSUT teacher running for the seat. Something important to our union was on the line. Loraine had to be there.

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Union Pride

There have been few uplifting moments in labor union life in recent times. We have even lived to see some blue collar unions actively supporting President Trump in the vain hope that he will make good on his promise to provide job, high paying one at that. The picture is not much better in the ranks of teacher unions, as the anti-tax climate has translated into an assault on thee wages and benefits teachers have gained through union efforts. So when we see something good happening, when we experience a rush of pride in one of our leaders, it is a moment to be relished. I had such a moment on Wednesday, when my partner Judi and I attended a rally in Lawrence, New York in support of the teachers there who have been without a contract for seven years. Almost better yet, the moment in question was created by AFT President Randi Weingarten, someone with whom I’ve often taken issue.

Once the envy of most districts in the state, the Lawrence school district is a shadow of its former self. Where once it led the state in student achievement, where it supported its teachers with professional salaries and working conditions, today its student achievement has waned, its classrooms are filled with economically disadvantages students and its teacher are forced to fight to hold on to what they have, let alone gain some advancement. If all of the children who live in the district attended its schools, Lawrence would be more racially and economically integrated with the benefits of that integration enriching all of the community’s children. They don’t, however, as the district has been taken over by orthodox Jews who send their children to parochial schools, leaving the public schools to serve minorities and the economically disadvantaged.

Usually at these rallies, union leaders utter some boilerplate remarks. I myself have made such speeches too many times, the words streaming from the right side of my brain to the point where in a real sense I’m not really present. Randi Weingarten was different at Wednesday’s rally. She was viscerally angry. Disdaining her notes, she launched into a very personal expression of her contempt for what the Lawrence Board of Education is permitting to happen to the students in their public schools. Informing the crowd that she is an observant Jew, married to a Rabbi, she talked about the ethical obligations that come with the acceptance of the Jewish faith. Her face contorted, she reminded the leaders of the Lawrence schools that their faith obliges them to care and nurture children, their children and the children of others. We participated in our demonstration, she told us, to shine a light on Lawrence and the outrage that has been happening there, promising to continue to keep the spotlight on that community until such time as justice is done to the students and teachers of the community because Judaism is about justice.

It’s going to take Jewish leaders to stand up and challenge Jewish bigotry. No one else will have the nerve for fear of coming off as anti-Semitic. I admire Weingarten for having the balls to speak the truth. Unionism should be about justice. It was on Wednesday evening thanks to Randi Weingarten.

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Anti-Union Bastards

The number of low-life scum who spend their days seeking to abridge the rights of teachers to have a voice on public policy by working together with colleagues in a labor union continues to grow. The Indiana legislature just passed a law that would require the state labor relations board to inform teacher of their rights to choose not to be represented by the unions in their districts. It further seeks to publicize the number of union members in each local union with the aim of promoting votes on decertification in districts where less than fifty percent of the teachers are union members. I wish I were a believer so I could tell myself that there is a special place in Hell for those who seek to destroy unions. I wish I could believe that some union leadership will come along that will create a Hell on earth for these bastards. I keep hope alive, but believe? That’s another matter.

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Our Own Inequality Issue

Labor unions are notoriously poor at dealing with their own employees, employees who are usually organized into union bargaining units. This has certainly been true of the national and state affiliates of the AFT and NEA. While our organizations have railed against the growing economic inequality in our nation, they have conspicuously failed to observe the same phenomenon in their own organizations where many elected officers and staff make salaries many times those of the average members they represent. Their pension and welfare benefits also tend to significantly outpace those of the members they serve. In my experience, they come to look and sound more like our adversaries than they do the members. The first time I walked into the headquarters of NYSUT, my state organization, I was struck by the corporate feel of the place. I would come to feel the same way about much of the staff. They neither look nor talk like union people by and large. At the risk of sounding naïve, too many of them are just working jobs. Too many are without any noticeable visceral commitment to the labor movement.

Our state and national union need an approach to the remuneration of staff and officers that ties salaries and benefits in some meaningful and transparent way to the compensation of the people they represent. When I was on the board of directors of NEA/New York, I argued for paying our president at the rate of the highest paid teacher we represented, adjusting for the fact that the job was for twelve months, not ten. I was met with a very sincere, albeit ignorant, response from the overwhelming majority of our board. All I was suggesting was that everyone rise with the ranks, not have officers and staff rise above the membership. One fellow, whom I genuinely liked and respected, said, “I want my CEO paid like a CEO,” obtuse to the irony of referring to the head of a labor union as a CEO.

There is about to be an officer election in my state organization. In nothing that I have seen is there any serious plan for how to go about addressing this issue. I don’t mean to suggest that this is an easy task. Years of growing the bureaucracy have yielded it more power in many ways than the elected officers and board of directors. Speaking of the board of directors, perhaps step one would be to end the substantial stipends members receive. I came to call those stipends hush money, in that to my perception fear of losing them determined how many of the directors voted on controversial issues. A board of members who are there because they wish to renew our movement would be a significant improvement. Candidates with an agenda to address the misallocation of members’ dues to salaries and benefits would take a significant step towards our waning solidarity.

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What’s the Plan?

I spent some time this morning looking at the webpages of each of the slates running to lead New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), our state union, affiliated with both the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Both the Unity and Stronger Together slates are clear on what they oppose. Both are also clear on wanting a stronger, more united, more effective and democratic union. Both are abysmally short on how they propose to accomplish these noble aims. Unity does have a plan to more precisely define the responsibilities of each of NYSUT’s officers which it claims will bring greater efficiency. They way they talk about it, the president will be in charge of representing us with the governor and legislature, while the other vice-presidents will each take responsibility for other aspects of the operation. If they really intend to operate in the way they describe, I suspect we will have a compounding of a problem that has existed for a long time – officer turf battles that are not resolved because the president lacks the political clout to be the final arbiter. I don’t know for certain, but I suspect that at least part of Karen Magee’s downfall came from trying to have too much of a say about NYSUT’s political operation, Executive Vice-President Andy Pallotta’s turf. It certainly was part of Dick Iannuzzi’s fall.

Neither slate offers any detailed plan for what should be the central concerns of anyone looking to lead NYSUT – the ever increasing irrelevancy of the organization to the rank and file members it exists to serve and the failure of the NYSUT service model to build power from the ground up. Stronger Together knows this, but they have yet to offer anything but platitudes about more democracy, educating the membership and organizing. Frankly, some of their positions are hopelessly naive. They appear to believe that we can build an organization in which New York City’s United Federation of Teachers (about 200,000, members) and the Plainview-Old Bethpage Congress (700 members) can have the same clout in NYSUT because power should come from ideas not membership numbers. Good luck with that.

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Political Turmoil in NYSUT

After only one term, Karen Magee is “stepping down” as President of NYSUT. We are to believe that she has been lured from the presidency of the largest state teachers union by the offer of a post with the AFT/New York State AFL-CIO. If you believe that, you believe that the Trump campaign had nothing to do with Russian intelligence officers. Quite simply, Magee has been pushed out, largely by the efforts of the United Federation of Teachers, the New York City NYSUT affiliate and the largest local by far in the state union.

It’s no secret that Magee has had her problems working with the current slate of officers. She took over a divided union and, from where I sit, made almost no attempt to heal that divide but instead alienated herself from the people who put her in office. The elevation of Andy Pallotta to the head of the Unity Caucus slate to replace Magee suggests that Michael Mulgrew, President of the UFT and a local leader long frustrated with the management of NYSUT, has had enough and has boldly decided to try and install his own person as NYSUT president. Working with AFT President Randi Weingarten, the union allies were able to use their influence with the state AFL/CIO to create a soft landing for Magee.

I came to the view a long time ago that NYSUT, like much of the American 7 labor bureaucracy, is organized to accomplish little or nothing. It has offered its constituent locasl a model of service unionism that has too many members looking to Albany for the solution to all problems rather than promoting local capacity and militancy as the way to build a truly powerful organization.To try to meet the demand for services, it has hired staff upon staff, providing them with salary and benefits beyond the wildest dreams of the average member paying the freight.

Now would be a good time for a slate of candidates who had a thought-out an organizing model to reform NYSUT to come to the fore. The Stronger Together Caucus will make the claim that they are that slate. But, reading their materials thus far, one is hardly encouraged. Their candidates offer educating the membership as their approach to governance. Thus far, I’ve seen nothing to suggest that they have a clue how to devolve much of the Albany NYSUT operation to the local level where the real potential power lies. There hasn’t been a word that I can find about how they would deal with the scary structural deficit threatening NYSUT. Neither am I aware of any plan they have for how to manage the very real threat of the loss of agency shop.

I’m sorry about Magee’s departure. When she ran for office, my local supported her, hoping that she would rebuild NYSUT into a membership powered organization. Having served with her on the NYSUT board, she certainly had some good ideas for doing that. What was unknown was did she know how to get those idea circulating through the sclerotic bureaucracy. It’s clear now that she didn’t, much to the misfortune of the state’s school personnel.

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Why Bother to Meet?

I’ve taken a few days to think about late week’s NEA convention before writing about it. I found myself unsure of whether it was the most boring and inconsequential NEA convention I had ever attended did I see it that way for some reason owing to my recent retirement. The more I think about it, the more I’m sure it’s the former.

For an organization under attack from many quarters, for a union that has bled substantial membership in recent years, there was surprisingly little in the way of calls to action. If this had been one’s first national meeting, one would think that all is so well that all we have to talk about are the rules by which we run our conventions. It was truly alarming to listen to speaker after speaker offer some suggestion about how we might change our rules to facilitate our meeting, speakers who ironically clearly had nothing on their minds of substance to talk about.

NEA Executive Director John Stocks offered up an impassioned speech the theme of which was that we have to listen to the needs of our newest members of the profession. While his manner bespoke serious business, the content of his remarks were almost humorous by comparison. Is our teacher union movement in such bad shape that the activists of the organization have to be reminded to listen to the members? What a missed opportunity to send people home from the convention with a serious mission.

I would hazard a guess that a majority of the delegates came from local unions that do not have one hundred percent membership. Imagine if someone in leadership had worked the crowd up to have each one go home and recruit one new member this year, one new member. What if the 10,000 or so activists were asked to go home and make an immediate visit to the office of their Congressperson to demand that the recent ESSA legislation be implemented as written and not as Secretary King has interpreted it? I’m always amazed that we gather our union activists at great cost to meetings and send them home with nothing specific to do, all the while talking about the need to organize.

Hillary spoke to a wildly enthusiastic crowd. While some in the press suggest that she signaled a pronounced break from the education policies of the Obama administration, I found her comments so nuanced as to be unsure of exactly what her positions are other than we will have a seat at the table and that she has our backs. Clearly no one in NEA leadership pressed her before hand to explicitly repudiate the corporate education reform movement. If they warned her about saying anything positive about charter schools, she certainly paid them no heed, drawing some loud boos from the audience when she alluded to them positively. Our organizations demand so little in exchange for our support.

I continue to be bitterly disappointed by the performance of Lily Eskelsen Garcia, our NEA president. With personality traits that at once make people like her, this person of enormous political talent has essentially frittered away her time in office. She is ideally suited to be the face of the anti-corporate reformers. Yet she and the NEA she leads always appear to be reluctant to take them on, often opting instead for engagement with them in the hope of convincing them of the errors of their ways. I’m all for keeping hope alive, but……

If big, expensive meetings like the national conventions of the NEAand AFT are not to be about inspiring and motivating the unions’ activists to build the organization in some way, enlarging its power and prestige, if after we have met there is nothing specific for the attendees to do to build and energize our movement, must we not consider some better use for the resources put into organizing these meetings?

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I’m Voting for Bernie Tomorrow

This primary season has offered an opportunity to understand why the message of a large part of the labor movement fails resonates with the American people. It has become a movement that shuns idealism. In no segment of our movement is that clearer than in our public education unions who leaders have ridiculed Bernie Sanders for his call for tuition free college education at state supported schools, universal health coverage, breaking up too big to fail financial institutions and even more disturbing pooh-poohing the possibility of a political revolution to substantially change an economic system heavily rigged in favor of a kleptocratic elite. They are obtuse to the reality that there is no future for our unions in the current system. They have lost faith in the promise of America becoming a better society, one in which education, health care and economic security are the rights of all Americans.

I’ll vote for Bernie Sanders tomorrow because I continue to believe that it is possible to reverse the 30 year trend of stagnating wages of the American worker. I believe that all citizens should have an opportunity to receive as much free education as they are able to absorb. While I applaud the Affordable Care Act, there are still too many Americans who do not have access to quality health care. I don’t understand, and never will, why they can’t have the same Medicare that covers me. I will vote for Bernie because he is as outraged as I that so many American children are stunted by poverty in the richest nation the word has ever known. We have a system that is literally shortening the lives of millions of our citizens. The movement Bernie Sanders seeks to build wants to change that. How can I not be a part of that noble goal?

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We Must become the Movement We Claim to Be

In our NEA New York days, Judi Alexanderson, Mike Lynch and I used to do a workshop many summer for union officers on how to build stronger locals. The goal was to reduce the dependence of local on the state organization, with the even larger goal redirecting resources from Albany to the locals out of a strong belief that the best possible work for a local is by well- trained local leaders. While I believe we helped some locals to become more independent, the vast majority are as weak today as then. Being a part of NYSUT now for a dozen years or so, to many resources still flow towards Albany rendering locals weaker than they have to be. That reality is embedded in the structure of our state union rather than in the conscious efforts of our state leaders. To be sure, NYSUT too makes some efforts to empower locals, but the fact that a looming Supreme Court decision in Friendrichs terrified us is stark testimony to that fact that we are not any way near as organized and resourced on the local level as we should be.

My own local is not perfect, but we had no fear of Friedrichs nor do we fear the cases that are sure to follow it. Had the decision in Friedrich’s gone against, we were already insulated from it, having signed our members up for next year. The yearly sign up process will now become a part of our yearly routine. Our teacher labor movement has largely failed to organize its local unions to be able to easily accomplish things like this. The extreme political right has located this vulnerability and is exploiting it from every direction. Were we the movement we claim to be, and I believe we could be, they wouldn’t have a chance against us.

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It’s Outreach Time for NEA and AFT

It’s certainly clearer this morning that while Bernie Sanders can and will stay in the race for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States, there won’t be enough voters feeling the Bern to put him over the top. It’s not too soon for the leaders of our two national education unions, full-throated supporters of Hillary Clinton from the very beginning, to begin the fence mending process with the many rank and file members who are passionate supporters of Sanders, support that for many got all twisted up with their alienation from and resentment of what they see as the policy failures of their unions and the coziness of their leaders with a Washington establishment that has supported education policies that have been detrimental to the work of teachers and the students they teach.

In her victory speech last evening, Clinton took care to embrace some of Sanders’ themes, a significant step to begin a uniting process and recognition of the extent to which Bernie has pushed Clinton leftward from her comfort zone to the right of center. Many of my colleagues in the education labor movement don’t feel that the NEA and AFT treated Sanders fairly, both in the process of their endorsements of Clinton and in some of the ridiculously thoughtless criticism of Sanders. If our leaders, like their preferred candidate, will take a few steps to the left, if will reach out to the Sanders supporters, maybe even finding subtle ways to admit that their early Clinton endorsement was heavy-handed, it should be possible to bring our membership together for the challenge posed by Donald Trump. Hillary is going to need the passion and energy of the Sanders members. The effort to bring them into the fold must start today.

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How Did Idealism Become a Bad Thing?

I realize that having decided to endorse Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary, NEA and AFT leadership need to try to organize membership support for their endorsed candidate. Being a practical man, I’m prepared to work my ass off for Hillary should she become the party’s candidate for the presidency, even though I’m a strong supporter of Bernie Sanders and the program he advocates. What I don’t get, is their line of attack against Sanders.

For labor leaders, for union leaders who represent hard working, underpaid people, people who find themselves being squeezed out of the middle class and robbed of their profession by a corporate led school reform movement to attack Sanders for being idealistic, an unelectable socialist is to ironically betray what real leaders do – offer those they would lead a vision of a better world than the one they inhabit. Bernie is attacked for unrealistically believing it possible for our public colleges and universities to educate for free the children of the taxpayers who fund these institutions as is done by most of the world’s industrial democracies. Bernie is attacked and ridiculed for not wanting to settle for the Affordable Care Act but wanting to continue to work for the day when quality healthcare is no longer a commodity but a human right. Paid family leave, absolutely essential to the people I represent, is yet another example of Bernie’s hopeless idealism and evidence for his not being qualified to be president. It’s just weirdly unsettling to have the national leadership of our teacher unions attacking a life-long defender of working people, a man with the temerity to attack the corporate elites of our nation, the very elites who have financed the attack on public education.

In a deeply troubling way, the manner in which our national union leaders, and to be fair many other liberal elites, are treating Bernie Sanders is a manifestation our union movement’s lack of motivating idealism. Our leaders would do well to learn from Bernie, particularly his appeal to the young. They might gain some insight, stimulate what’s left of their imaginations, to come up with an agenda for re-inventing the education labor movement for a new generation of members. A little idealism would go a long way in the battle against the forces arrayed against us.

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Paid Family Leave

Could it be that the stars are aligning toward the passage of paid family leave legislation in New York?

A few weeks ago, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio granted twelve weeks of paid family to over 20,000 City employees by executive order and with the further promise to negotiate with the unions for the remainder of the City’s workforce. Not to be out done by his rival for supremacy in New York’s Democratic Party, Governor Cuomo featured a proposal for paid family leave in his State of the State speech the other day.

People in public education need many fixes to the state’s laws, but paid family leave would be a real boon to the people I represent, people who can’t currently afford to settle in their new born children, deal with the unexpected illness of a family member, often a parent who lives in retirement thousands of miles away. A week doesn’t go by that I don’t receive a phone call from a desperate member seeking help with maintaining her income while meeting her obligations to a member of her family. Too often, management is indifferent, sometimes even hostile to the member’s need. It would relieve so many to know that in such time of need, the law of New York was there to support with up to twelve weeks of paid family leave.

II intend to make passage of paid family leave a major focus of my local’s lobbying efforts this year. I hope and trust that my NYSUT brothers and sisters will do the same. Both the NEA and AFT need to get very publically behind legislation introduced by New York’s Senator Kirsten Gillibrand that would make paid family leave a national entitlement. It’s surely time for the United States to join the rest of the civilized world and take the welfare of families seriously.

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Making Our Own Justice

I’ve always found it curious that most people recoil at the statement that the law is often made in the streets. Social unrest, or the threat of it, has historically been a powerful motivator of justice. The Brown Decision, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of the 60’s came to be thousands and thousands of citizens, united beyond race and social class by their belief in equality, demonstrated in the streets of our nation, demanding justice and an end to the oppression of people on the basis of their race.

I read a piece by Shamus Cooke this morning of this lesson that I learned long ago. Cooke reminds our union brothers and sisters that we don’t have sit back and let the reactionary majority of the Supreme Court use the Friedrichs Case to eviscerate public sector unions, the only part of the American labor movement that has been growing in recent times. He calls on us to do what those who engineered all social justice movements have done. Get organized and take to the streets. I fear it’s a challenge we won’t accept to our everlasting shame. We may have forgotten how to make our own justice.

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Our Kick in the Ass

One can almost hear the teeth gnashing of public sector union leadership following the reports of the argument at the Supreme Court yesterday in the Fredrichs case. Simply stated, Friedrichs and ten other California public school teachers are challenging the right of the California Teachers Association and its affiliates to collect an agency fee from individuals who choose not to belong to the union, an agency fee currently legal and paid in recognition that whether or not a person belongs to a union, he profits from their work in negotiations and contract enforcement. All reports indicate that the argument did not go well for the unions. Want to know more about the case and argument? The best coverage I’ve read is in the SCOTUSBLOG.
What I don’t hear from the national or state unions is a coherent plan in the event that agency fee is completely struck down by the high court, a likely event given what the media coverage seems to indicate. My local, currently at 100% membership, will shortly be asking members to sign membership renewal cards authorizing dues deductions for the 2016-17 school year. We want to know who is with us and who’s a freeloader seeking to profit from our work. Then, if the Supreme Court wants to be the agent of the right wing that seeks the destruction of organized labor, we will be prepared to resist. I can’t understand why the national unions are not promoting a similar plan. Enough moaning and groaning. Both the NEA and AFT talk about organizing. Let’s actually do it now in anticipation of the worst possible outcome of the Fredrichs case. Let our fear of what the court will do be our kick in the ass.

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Teach Strong

The other day, a colleague drew my attention to Teach Strong, a coalition of organizations interested in public education who want to work to make teaching a more attractive career. Both the AFT and NEA are participants in this venture, a venture premised on the belief that the quality of America’s teachers is poor and that changing the way we recruit, train, support and pay teachers is key to having a great teacher in every public school classroom.

Why the hell members are paying dues to the NEA and AFT to have their leadership run down their abilities is beyond me. Much of the bullshit that passes for serious discussion of teacher quality references SAT scores of ed-school students and draws conclusions about their intellect and teaching abilities on the basis of a standardized test that is increasingly coming to be understood to essentially be a fraud. Are there some dumb teachers? Sure! Just as there are some incredibly dumb physicians, dentists, lawyers etc. Here’s the interesting thing from my experience, however. I’ve met numbers of teachers over the years who are not intellectual giants, don’t see themselves as belonging to an intellectual elite, but who are, nevertheless, fantastic teachers, teachers who any sane person would want their children exposed to.

Even the name Teach Strong is offensive, the implication being that we have been teaching weakly. Why is it that we can’t face the fact that talent in any field is unequally distributed so that to expect there to be a “great teacher” in every classroom (whatever that means) is ludicrous. Beyond any reasonable doubt, we could staff every classroom with honors Ivy League graduates, and we wouldn’t have a great teacher in every classroom. We might even be surprised to find that we had made matters worse. The real problems facing America’s public schools have little to nothing to do with the quality of the teacher workforce. We would gain much more from halting the denigration of America’s teachers than we will from raising the bar for entry into the job.

America’s teachers are teaching strong. Many work in places where salaries are so low they must work multiple jobs to maintain themselves and their families. Even in our best schools, places where teachers make considerably more than the median American salary, teachers meet the challenges of working in an hostile environment, one in which they are essentially isolated from other teachers, asked to individualize instruction to over 120 students, evaluated in part on the test results of student scores on high stakes tests, required to respond to the most outrageous complaints with complete equanimity, infantilized by administrators who increasingly have had little teaching experience and where they talk increasingly about career change. Hardly a week goes by that one of our members doesn’t tell me about a conversation she has had with her child who has express interest in becoming a teacher. With guilty looks on their faces, these members tell me how they discouraged their kids from following them into teaching. Like all good parents, they want better than they have for their kids.

We’re already teaching strong. What we need is for people to notice, especially our national union leaders.

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Fredrichs Might Just get Us Back to Organizing

There is justifiable fear in public sector labor ranks of an adverse decision by the United States Supreme Court in the Friedrichs Case to be decided by the end of the court’s current term. The case turns on the claim of a California teacher that that her constitutional rights are being violated by having to pay an agency fee to her union, a union she does not belong to and which she does not support. Until now, the Supreme Court has held that while public sector workers have a right not to belong to the union in their workplace, they nevertheless have an obligation to pay for benefits they enjoy as a result of the union’s work. They do not, however, have to pay for the political or ideological work the union does. Fredrichs claims that she should not have to pay anything to an organization to which she does not belong and that doing so violates her constitutional rights. Should she prevail, our teacher unions project a severe loss of revenue, the belief being that many members will opt out of membership if they do not have to pay an agency fee instead.

Frightening though a union loss in this case will be, the shock just might be what’s necessary to breathe some energy into a movement that for too long subordinated organizing to political action. Local unions like mine, that have tried to maintain their organizing capacity while many around us disarmed, are already planning for an adverse decision. We will prepare for the worst possible decision, one that does away with agency fee and requires us to sign up our membership each year by signing them up in advance for next year. In doing so, we will have a twofold purpose. Most of our members will have no problem signing, thereby ensuring that the flow of dues necessary to support the essential work of our union will be uninterrupted. We have staff and bills that must be paid. Those who balk, and there may be some, will self-identify as the people we have to talk more to and win over to our cause. In those conversations we will no doubt learn of grievances these people have with our union and its leaders, grievances that often could be fixed if we only knew about them. While we always try to engage the members in the importance of our union, we are doing so now with a new sense of urgency. Those unions that don’t will not survive an adverse Supreme Court decision. Yesterday, I attended a meeting at which some local leaders expressed the opinion that their local unions would lose forty percent of their membership. If that’s true, they have not a second to lose.

While I’m on the subject of organizing, I came across a very interesting interview with Jane McAlevey a noted labor organizer. Her thoughts, particularly those related to the centrality of our education unions to a revitalized labor movement will be of interest to many of my readers in our movement.

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NEA To Follow AFT IN Premature Endorsement

I gather that this weekend the NEA Board of Directors will endorse Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary. Should they do so, they will be following the premature endorsement of the AFT and will have unnecessarily committed our membership to a candidate who as handled herself about as maladroitly as possible. Perhaps even more importantly, they will have further eroded the connection of the leaderships of both unions to the political activists in our ranks on whom they must depend to have their endorsement have any meaning.

By and large the union members likely to do the work to make our endorsement worthwhile are with Bernie Sanders. They have responded to his program for an economy that works for all of the people of our society, not just the one percent. They believe in his support for public education and trust that he stands up for what he says. The one’s I meet are both idealistic and practical. Their idealism embraces Bernie’s appeal to economic justice. Their pragmatism leaves them understanding him to be a longshot. Should he lose to Hillary, they are prepared to enthusiastically support her, but they believe, and so do I, that she will be a different Hillary as a result of their contest. Beyond any reasonable doubt, Bernie has pushed Hillary to the political left. Why not let that process continue? Why not make Hillary work for our endorsement? Where does Hillary stand on high stakes testing and its linkage by the reform movement to the evaluation of teachers? Where is Hillary on charter schools? What’s her program for addressing the achievement gap? Our premature support for her makes it much less likely that we will get definitive answers from her to any of these questions.

Once again the desire to cozy up to the powerful for the pleasure of the experience rather than as a part of a calculated political strategy appears to have overtaken both unions and thereby weakened them and the members they serve.

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A Premature Endorsement

Over the weekend the Executive Council of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) voted to endorse Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary. That endorsement coming out of the blue has upset many union activists who have found in Senator Bernie Sanders an authentic champion of working people who has rekindled their idealism – idealism that has been hard to come by in a world of declining private sector union membership and a corporate funded assault on organized workers in the public sector. Most union activists, I suspect, would have been completely open to supporting Hillary Clinton later on in the primary process, recognizing the longshot nature of the Sanders candidacy. Many of us hoped that the give and take between Sanders and Clinton would force Hillary to the left on economic, worker and education issues than she would naturally tend to be without serious opposition.

The AFT based its endorsement on the questionnaires completed by the candidates and a poll conducted of the membership during the last week in June indicating members support for Clinton. While some of my union colleagues mistrust the findings of the membership poll, I accept the results for what they are – a snap shot of the membership at the very beginning of the primary process when a good number of the members know very little about Bernie Sanders and the progressive policies he has supported over his distinguished career in Congress. If that poll were taken today after news reports of the crowds Sanders has been attracting in Iowa and New Hampshire, I suspect we would see a different picture.

In pushing this early endorsement, AFT Randi Weingarten has very unnecessarily poked her finger in the eye of many of the organization’s activists, the very people whose work on the ground is infinitely more important to a candidate than the money the union is able to provide. While the membership poll was clearly intended to make the endorsement appear to be membership driven, the timing of it was so ham-handed as to have generated the exact opposite effect.

If we look at the candidate questionnaires, it seems to me we find strong support for the thesis that the endorsement came too early. Were we to base our endorsement solely on the positions of the candidates, it seems to me Sanders would clearly get our nod. But don’t take my word for this; see what Sanders and Clinton had to say.

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Lead to Power

Our national teacher unions are bending backwards trying to appeal to the new generation of public school teachers. Our leaders have been saying that within the next six years, two million new teachers will be added to our ranks. These newer teachers want help with their professional lives, and I’m sure they do, but not the kind of stuff our national unions are peddling.

I could be completely wrong, but I don’t think having canned lesson plans available to them is a vital concern. I doubt that they are as interested as our leaders would have us believe they are in staff development. If they are anything like the teachers of my generation, they want to go home at the end of their workday to take care of their own kids and do the preparation for the next day’s classes. They don’t want to sit and listen to the latest educationist twaddle.

I suspect they would like some help with the extraordinary amount of work we ask them to do. We spend so much time comparing our test score to those of other countries but very little comparing the number of hours teachers spend in the classroom. Our teachers are asked to do so much more than teachers in the countries we like to compare ourselves to. We ought to be putting our effort into the issue of class size. Some English teachers in my upper middleclass district have student loads of over 120 students. As an old English teacher, I know it is literally impossible to teach writing effectively with those kinds of student loads, but our national leaders say very about this.

In short, I believe that the goal of teacher unions always was and always should be power, the power to demand and get good pay and benefits; the power to demand and receive fair treatment; the power to practice our profession with the degree of autonomy necessary to do it well; the power to evaluate our students; and the power to shape the standards of good professional work. NEA leaders have begun talking about the empowered teacher, but somehow they don’t seem to want to empower teachers the way I do.

I wonder sometimes whether the public doesn’t view our advocacy for things like staff development and professional growth opportunities and National Board Certification and such as our admission that our members are not up to snuff because they require all of this assistance and improvement.

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