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.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

Lessons to be Learned

I’ve now been to my last NEA Representative Assembly. I’ve managed to get trough thirty some odd of them with little damage to my nervous system or cognitive capacity. While most of these yearly meetings are notable for accomplishing next to nothing, they do afford an opportunity to take the temperature of the organization and gain some insight into the state of its health and the health of public education in America. In the next series of posts, I’ll try highlight what I see as the lessons to be learned from this gathering of over seven thousand NEA activists.

Lesson one is that despite the fact that the NEA faces an existential threat from several Supreme Court cases that seem sure to ultimately wipe out agency fee arrangements and more importantly require public sector unions to sign members up each year, the convention was almost devoid of any discussion of this threat or any obvious plan to foil or mitigate this impending legal attack. Sure, here and there our national leaders worked in a line or two about our urgent need to organize, but with thousands of the members who will be vital to withstanding this attack in one place, absolutely nothing was done to organize them and provide them with a plan and tools to give us some hope of winning. In fact, the one substantive new business item designed to address this issue, an item calling for a substantial expenditure to hire numbers of professional organizers was referred, I believe, to the Executive Committee with the obvious intent of killing it.

If talking alone could repel the powerful attacks on our education union, the NEA would surely survive. It is a core belief of the NEA that if we talk about a problem we have taken action to solve it. Unfortunately talking about organizing and organizing are two fundamentally different things.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

Scott Walker’s War on Wisconsin’s Public Schools

Most teachers are at least vaguely aware of what Governor Scott Walker did to the public employee unions in Wisconsin. Ending collective bargaining, ending agency fee and requiring local unions to be recertified each year by a majority in the unit are generally understood to be inimical to the welfare of teachers and public employees. There is also a general sense in our ranks that the Trump administration has very similar goals nationally. What hasn’t received much attention is what Walker’s war on public employee unions has actually done to public education in Wisconsin and what his approach could mean for school districts throughout the United State in the era of Trumpism. Patrick Caldwell, writing in Mother Jones, gives us an unvarnished view of the consequences of Walker’s assault on Wisconsin’s schools. Thos who value public schools and appreciate their centrality to a democratic society would be wise to think about Caldwell’s analysis.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

Deer in the Headlights

There is a real sense in which the success of unions in gaining agency fee and dues check-off has served to weaken them. In New York, where we have an agency fee law, there are probably thousands of public workers who are not union members and who are rarely contacted, if ever, about joining the union. Clever local unions structure their dues in such a way that they are equal or almost equal to member dues. With non-member money in hand, it doesn’t seem that important to try to win the non-members to our cause. In fact, with members’ money coming in through payroll deduction, union officials in the workplace are often unmotivated to be in constant organizing mode.

The result is that while we are now threatened by national right to work legislation, most unions are thoroughly unprepared to cope with the loss of agency fee and perhaps dues check-off. How many locals have their members signed up for next year to insulate themselves from the dire possibilities posed by the Trump administration? How many could if they had to hand collect member dues after each payday? How many have prepared themselves to take the credit cards of members who increasingly live in a cashless society? Beyond any doubt, few are prepared, having been lulled into laziness by years of receiving their income automatically.

Following a strike, my local lost the dues check-off for 18 months, leaving us to hand collect the dues. While it was a herculean effort, I would argue that our solidarity was never stronger, in the end getting the money from every member and even getting some of the very few agency fee payers to pony up their fair share.

I know I keep sounding the alarm about our unpreparedness should we get bad legislation or more likely a bad Supreme Court decision, but I simply don’t see a concerted effort to prepare for the very likely assault on our unions. We know what’s coming but appear to be frozen like deer in the headlights.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

From Wisconsin to the Nation

Wisconsin’s Act 10 was wormy Governor Scott Walker’s nuclear attack on the public sector unions in his state. It effectively ended public sector collective bargaining and, with its end to mandatory agency fees, crippled union memberships thereby severely limiting the political power of unions to lobby their elected representatives. A recent article in The Atlantic by Alana Semuels details the impact of Walker’s union cleansing on teachers in Wisconsin. This piece ought to be shared with every union member who supported Donald Trump. We will soon experience the fallout of Act 10 as it becomes a national model.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

Trump and Agency Fee

Teacher unions first response to the election of Donald Trump had better be insulating themselves from the effects of a Trump Supreme Court reconsidering the Friedrichs case challenging the right of public sector unions to collect so-called agency fees from those in a union workplace who choose not to belong to the union. Justice Scalia’s death last year enabled us to escape from what was pretty sure to be a striking down of agency fee laws. It’s a sure bet that any Trump appointment will be hostile to public sector unions, especially teacher unions. Trump said very little during the campaign about education, but what little he did say was all about vouchers, charter schools and a deep hostility to our two great teacher unions, blaming them for what he sees as the failure of America’s schools.

When it seemed that we going to lose the Friedrichs case, I convinced my local union to have members sign union authorization cards for the following year. We successfully did so, and in so doing educated our members to the threat of Friedrichs. It also allowed us to identify those few in our midst who might be potential freeloaders and to plan for how to deal with them. By the time of Scalia’s death, we collected 99 percent of the cards and were effectively insulated from the most extreme Supreme Court decision.

It is not too early for local unions to plan for the loss of agency fee. To me, the above approach is relatively easy, especially in locals that currently have a high percentage of membership. It has the potential for other long term benefits too, as building level leaders must actively engage members to explain the threatening issues posed by the new administration and the harmful effects they could have on members if their solidarity is weakened by court decisions that encourage people to not pay union dues. Done enthusiastically and skillfully, we could free ourselves of the need for agency fee, a concept we fought for but which has made too many of us lazy and disconnected from the concerns of our members. The time to act is now!

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

The Lesson of Friedrichs

As we in the labor movement celebrate our victory in the Friedrichs Case, it’s important to remind ourselves of our vulnerabilities that the sponsors of this case sought to exploit – the sad fact that we have as many agency fee payers as we have. If all of our local unions had had an ongoing commitment of time money and energy to internal organizing, there is no doubt that the number of non-members would have been be significantly reduced. Before agency fee laws came into existence, there was much more effort made on workplace organizing because local unions had an existential reason to do it. Once we were assured of getting their money anyway, interest in convincing non-members to join was no longer a priority. The backers of the Friedrichs Case understand this weakness of ours and will continue to attempt to legally exploit it. While we may be feeling flush with victory today, this is not a time to rest easy. There will undoubtedly be further attacks against us. Our goal has to be to internally organize so successfully as to be immune to attacks that seek to cut off our resources. I deeply believe we could do this. My own local has always functioned on an organizing model. We are almost finished with our membership renewal drive undertaken to protect ourselves from an adverse decision in Friedrichs. I’m very pleased to say that almost every member is already signed up. Had Friedrichs gone against us, that decision would have had no impact on our ability to run our union and protect our members. As importantly, the union reps who did the leg work to re-sign our members for next year learned organizing skills that are easily transferable to other issues. Friedrichs was a good reminder for us of what is important to the welfare of our union.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments