A Teachable Moment

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

West Virginia Militancy

I’ve had a few arguments with the leaders of both the NEA and AFT over my years as a union officer. In general I have criticized both for a general lack of militancy and an idealized, distorted view of the conditions under which our members work. Both organizations have been slow to realize that k-12 teaching has become an increasingly difficult, less rewarding job, a job that with each passing year has less and less to do with serious education, a job that forces thousands upon thousands of teacher across the country to work one or more extra jobs to keep their families going. Where we should be organizing them to demand better pay and benefits, we offer them professional development, often how to courses that teach them how to cope
with conditions that they shouldn’t have to contend with in the first place. Where militancy is sparked by these dreadful conditions, we often find our national organizations hosing down the fires rather than stoking them.

A case in point is the recent teacher strikes in West Virginia. If you expected to read about how teachers in three West Virginia counties closed down their school districts last Friday and went to the state capitol to demand better pay and an end to attempts to do away with seniority regulations, you would have been completely disappointed. I came upon it in Newsweek, not exactly a journal of radical labor opinion. Wouldn’t one think that NEA and AFT would be in the vanguard of these brave teachers? Shouldn’t we expect our national leaders to shine the spotlight on West Virginia as an example of teachers taking their destiny into their own hands and demanding the respect they so completely deserve? Shouldn’t we wonder why two potentially powerful national organizations appear to be missing this opportunity to use the example of West Virginia to demonstrate to their memberships the importance of maintaining membership in these unions?

The two state organizations in West Virginia have been feuding for years, raids and counter raids preventing them from doing the sensible thing and developing a common agenda to improve the conditions of their members. If there ever was a time to put the past behind them, it would certainly seem to be 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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