A Teachable Moment

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

New York Meeting the Challenge

I’m quick to criticize our union movement. I’m quick too to congratulate when something is right and going well. Three years ago when the Friedrichs Case threatened our unions’ right to the collection of agency fees, I suggested to the leadership of New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), my state organization, that we not wait for what would surely be an adverse Supreme Court decision and instead immediately begin a yearly process of re-signing up our members. To do that before the court’s decision would have most, if not all of our members in place while identifying those who might seek to be freeloaders. The room-full of local leaders and the NYSUT officer running the meeting responded to my suggestion as though I had put forth a proposal so absurd as to preclude any serious discussion. Silence was the initial response, and then a polite, “I’ll take that suggestion back to Albany.”

Since then, I’m happy to say, NYSUT has clearly run with my idea. Much of their PR work has been focused in recent times on educating members to the political realities behind the threat to agency fee, now from the Janus Case, and a multi-pronged campaign promoting the yearly signing of union membership applications. From what I’m able to gather, the campaign is going well, with local leaders beginning to see the possibilities of not only surviving what is sure to be an adverse decision in Janus but emerging from confronting the threat with much stronger local organizations. To be sure, we will lose some members, but if we take the next step and isolate the freeloaders so that there is a social cost to what they see as their financial gain, in the end we will be rewarded for the struggle to preserve our unions. A new generation of union leaders will have learned of the benefits of a focus on organizing as opposed to running service oriented locals.

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The Janus Case

As expected, the United States Supreme Court has taken the Janus case, a case testing whether the court’s conservative, anti-labor majority, will strike down a previous court’s precedent Affirming public sector unions’ right to collect from non-members the costs associated with bargaining and maintaining their labor contracts – the so-called agency fee. This case, like others, is part of a well-financed movement to destroy what is left of the American labor movement and making the United States a right-to-work country.

While the threat posed by the previous Friedrichs case prompted some fear motivated attention to membership organizing, I’m sorry to say that a loss in the Janus case will have catastrophic consequences for most of the education unions in the country. I have come to the view that agency fee was one of the worst things for our movement. Ironically, we put a great deal of political and bargaining effort into achieving it only to have it weaken us. With dues automatically pouring in, the pressure to engage membership grew weaker and weaker. More and more of our unions’ energy was focused on political work and hardly any effort was consistently made to build the capacity of local memberships to fend for themselves.

While I’m glad to see our unions recognizing the need for internal organizing, the fact it that it is a painstakingly slow process. It can’t simply be turned on when we need it. It’s built day to day and maintained day to day. It builds from daily reminders of the common fate of the members. It develops from the little day to day workplace victories that build confidence and pride in the growing sense of power of members. It’s magnified when management is forced to yield to a demand. It was our union’s birthright which we foolishly abandoned.

Janus is the name of the Roman god of beginnings and endings. What an ironic name for a case that may well determine the future of our labor movement.

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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!

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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.

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Need to Re-energize Opt-Out

I met with some union colleagues last evening. I was happy to learn that they are moving forward with getting their members to sign membership renewal cards for next year. Like me, they are hoping that the death of Justice Scalia ends the imminent threat posed by the Friedrichs case to agency fee, but they are determined to protect their locals lest their faith in the four liberals on the high court has been misplaced or one of the Republican Neanderthals running for the presidency wins and appoints an ideological successor to Scalia. I actually am starting to believe that this generation of union leaders is starting to learn the secrets of organizing.

Their interest in organizing was manifest in our discussion of the status of the opt-out movement. Most of us are concerned that some of the energy of the movement has been sapped by the propaganda success of the moratorium enacted last year on consequences from high stakes tests for either students or teachers. I share the fear expressed that some of the public, and perhaps even our own members, believe that the threat posed by high stakes testing has abated. Yet, students are still asked to take essentially useless tests, and, worst of all, the tests continue to drive instruction a direction toward the substitution of training instead of education. The simple fact is that the reasons the opt-out movement was formed remain, and those of us who passionately support it are looking for fresh ways to support and build it, as it continues to be the most potent weapon we have against the test and punish reformers.

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Scalia’s Death and Friedrichs

The threat posed by the Friedrichs Case to our public sector labor movement has not gone away with the death of Justice Scalia. I’m unnerved this morning to read various pro-union writers talking about how we have dodged a bullet. It’s troubling to read this stuff because I fear it will invariably lead to a relaxation of an already somewhat lame effort to organize our members to deal with this existential threat and others like it. Having been awakened from a long slumber by Friedrichs, we must take its lesson and use it to immunize ourselves against attacks like it. I refuse to count on the four so-called liberals on the Supreme Court to do the right thinks and affirm our right to agency fee. I don’t want to have to worry that one of the Republican madmen running for the presidency will be elected in November and appoint a replacement for Scalia that will have us longing for his enlightened opinions.

The Friedrichs case was dreamed up and pushed by the extreme right for whom union are anathema. They are not going away anytime soon. Justice Scalia’s death may have temporarily set their agenda back, but to believe that we’re now home free is to be naïve in the extreme.

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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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