A Teachable Moment

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

ConCon Gave Us an Organizing Success

The vote against holding a constitutional conventional in New York was over 80 percent – 80 percent! That massive outpouring of voters is largely attributable to the efforts of the state’s unions that both educated their memberships to the dangers posed by a convention and organized them to work against it. The work to defeat the convention was the best union organizing we’ve seen in a long time. It should serve as an example to a weakened labor movement of what can still be done when memberships are led to take on difficult issues that threaten them.

The kind of effort that went into the defeat of the constitutional convention can and must be replicated to insulate ourselves from the threat of the loss of agency fee and due s deduction. Why hasn’t every public sector union developed an organizing campaign against the worst possible outcomes of an adverse decision in the Janus Case currently before the Supreme Court? Why aren’t plans in place to protect our unions from the loss of dues deduction? Why do we appear to be accepting the conventional wisdom that says that public sector unions can expect to lose upwards of 30 percent of their membership from an adverse decision in Janus?

Before I left office in my local, I started a process of signing members up each year in anticipation the real possibility of losing agency fee. My local has continued that process. Should we lose agency fee tomorrow, 100 percent of our members are signed up for next year. The card signing process in addition to protecting the local has served to educate members to the ongoing threat from the so-called Right to Work Movement to eviscerate what remains of our labor movement so as to strip from American workers the rights and protections a century or more of union struggle has provided. It is additionally empowering to a membership to know that they have collectively worked to protect themselves. That membership success makes it easier to organize the next collective effort.

The constitutional convention issue awakened the organizing talents of our unions. Those talents must now be unleashed on the continuing existential threats before us.

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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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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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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.

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