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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Organizing What?

Once A week or so, I browse the webpages of New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA). Each of these organizations I belong to claims to have rededicated itself to organizing in an effort to regain the initiative in the battle to protect its members and public education from the assault taking place in the name of reform. At almost every meeting of these organizations that I attend, the talk is about organizing, although, as I’m fond of pointing out, the talk almost never specifies exactly what we are to organize around. One would think that if we had a coherent organizing strategy, it would be discernible from their webpages.

On the NYSUT webpage this morning are pieces about newly Board Certified teachers, a buy America campaign, disaster relief work the organization is doing and why tenure matters. The AFT page features discussions of career and technical education, bullying prevention and expressions of teacher anger at the Time cover that evoked the impression that America’s classrooms are filled with rotten apple teachers. NEA is featuring holiday lessons and resources and a discussion of the sorry state of physical education. Some of these articles are even interesting, but none is directed at any big idea that any of these union are organizing around.

It seems to me sometimes that our education unions have forgotten that unions are about empowering their members, about striving to equalize the power relationships in the workplace. They’re about leading members in efforts to increase their power in the workplace. They’re about building their members’ political power, recognizing that gains at the collective bargaining table are easily wiped out by changes in the law. They’re about setting out lofty goals and organizing the collective action to attain them. One searches in vain for anything like that on the webpage of our education unions.

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