Both national teacher unions and most of their state affiliates are focused on organizing. Suddenly, unions have discovered that they need to return to their organizing roots if they are to meet the challenges posed by a corporate school reform effort backed by almost limitless funding that allows for the almost complete saturation of their message in the media. I’ve sat through countless meetings at various levels of these organizations, never really catching what it is our unions are attempting to organize around. I’ve been amused at such meetings to invariably find that a meeting of leaders called to talk organizing end without the participants being asked to work on some specific organizing activity.
My latest reminder of this irony occurred yesterday at a meeting of local union leaders, many of whom have been engaged in a series of state union sponsored meetings aimed at building local organizing capacity. At one point in the meeting, I found myself listening to the all too usual lament about how the members of their local unions don’t want to do anything. I was particularly taken by a younger leader who talked about an organizing effort that was aimed at building better attendance at union meetings. She had clearly put considerable effort into getting a turnout that never materialized. Although it puzzled her, she drew the correct conclusion that members were clueless as to why they should bother going to her meeting. Somehow, despite her state and national unions encouraging her generation of leaders to organize, there is no clear understanding as to what it is we are organizing around.
When I began to teach in my district, my local that had already had a strike to win the right to bargain collectively for the teachers (its first organizing idea) was organizing around the central idea of a starting teaching salary of $10,000. Most of the salary schedules in the area began at half that. With a Master’s degree and two years of experience, I began at $8,300. The simple, straight forward demand for a starting salary of $10,000 was an idea that resonated with all of us who were struggling to make a living, many of us requiring second and third jobs to make ends meet.
Our unions are having trouble organizing for lots of reasons, but central to the problem has been our failure to establish a few clear goals to organize around and a strategy for achieving them. Deep down we know that the scourge of high states testing and its linkage to teacher evaluation is a natural, but somehow our efforts never get much beyond our state and national leaders talking about it. While some of our locals actively encourage the opt-out movement, we don’t robustly encourage our locals to participate. While union media cover rebellions against testing like the recent one in Seattle, no effort is made to promote such activities elsewhere. A generation of teachers is on the verge of losing the last vestiges of the freedom to practice their craft, they being increasingly straight-jacketed with programs aligned (how I have come to hate that word aligned) to the Common Core State Standards that their state and national organizations have helped to promote, and our members have no clearly articulated goal and strategy for saving their profession.
So by all means, let’s organize, but until our members clearly understand what it is we hope to accomplish, I fear we are just squandering our money and our credibility in the organizing efforts we are making.