RETHINKING OUR STRATEGY

June 1, 2010

 

While local education unions have compared themselves with other similar districts, it has been equally true that there was a core belief that bargaining was a local matter, locals engaged the process without much concern for the ramifications of their decisions on other unions.  Though they belonged to state and national unions, their collectivity rarely extends to bargaining issues.  To be sure, most of us answer calls for help.  We attend demonstrations, walk picket lines, give advice and sometimes raise money for a challenged sister local.  In the end, however, the message from state and national unions to locals has been the same.  Work together on politics, but when it comes to collective bargaining, every local will do what it has to do.  That approach probably wasn’t the smartest thing we could have used over the years, but it worked well enough for there to be a general upward trend to the salaries and working conditions of our members.  We counted on our state and national organizations to create a supportive political climate and provide us with professional expertise that only their economy of scale could provide.   

We could prosper then because by and large our opposition was the local school board and we were dealing with local issues.  Those times have changed.  Today, the President of the United States, a substantial portion of the Congress, our Governor in New York and much of the state senate – across party lines, seem willing to blame everything from the financial troubles of our nation, the debilitating effects of poverty and racism, the effects of the misdistribution of wealth to the shrinkage of the coffee can on public employees, especially teachers.  Wall Street investment bankers bundle mortgages known to be toxic into AAA rated bonds thereby plunging the world into recession, and the media encourages citizens to wage war on public employees.  Private corporations rape the pension plans of their employees, public employee defined benefit pensions become too rich – unsustainable – a theft of public funds committed by public sector unions.  Tax revenues fall during an economic slump, elected officials call upon the public to demand wage freezes and other wage and benefit concessions.  Cowardly, school officials turn that into either the unions grant us economic concessions or we will lay off a significant number of your members.  Next door in Brentwood , New York , the union was threatened with the loss of 250 teaching jobs in addition to hundreds of school related professional positions if they did not give up projected raises.  When I asked my state senator what he was going to do to protect schools like those in Brentwood , he said, “What do you expect me to do?”    

I want to be absolutely clear.  I am not criticizing those who have made these concessions.  What I am saying is that we have organized ourselves very poorly to contend with the forces arrayed against us. Those who want more charter schools, those who support tying teacher evaluations to student test scores, those who want to lure us into a system in which getting state or federal aid is determined by a competition rather than objective need, those who would make of our public schools test prep mills in which both students and teachers can bore themselves into delirium – these people are much more powerful than any local union can battle.  They are organized; they have money; they have the media behind them, and they often have the power of government behind as well.  When Long Island’s excuse for a newspaper does whatever it can to undermine the public’s confidence in the way their schools are run, when that paper creates a place for itself at the bargaining table in each school district, I submit that we are no longer bargaining local contracts anymore but allowing ourselves to be picked off one by one by a coalition of forces bent the retrenchment of all the progress we have made for our memberships over the last fifty years.   

To continue on our current path of bargaining state and national issues locally is madness.  Rather, the time has come to demonstrate that we are not weak and isolated.  The time has come to use our numbers and creativity to think of imaginative ways to indicate that we’re fed up and we’re not going to sit back and take it anymore.  Sadly, here too, we are not organized to fight.  In too many places, union leaders don’t even think it’s possible to fight back, resorting instead to futile attempts to buy good will by supporting anti-education, anti-teacher measures out of a belief that the best that can be done is to limit the damage – that some how if we self-inflict a few wounds the public will take pity on us.  It’s in this dispirited state that NYSUT, the New York merged affiliate of the AFT and NEA, cooked a deal with the state ed department and the legislature to do what just about every educator knows is wrong, use the results of state tests to evaluate teachers.  Not only will this so-called accountability scheme not improve the education of a single child, it will simply increase the pressure to further narrow the curriculum and cause us to take a giant step toward making our schools test prep mills.  As Diane Ravitch says in her new book Death and Life of The Great American School System, “ …despite the ‘slipshod nature of the tests, despite the random variability among them, despite the fact that they diverge dramatically in quality, the lives of students, teachers and principals – and the fate of schools – are to be based on them.”  

It’s time for our national unions to recognize that the Obama administration is no friend of public education or the people who staff the schools.  When our members voted for change, they didn’t have in mind a more sophisticated plan to privatize our nation’s schools and destroy the education union movement in the process.  There is no real bargain to be struck with a crowd that believes in charter schools, judging teachers on the basis of their students’ scores on unreliable tests, merit pay schemes without objective measures of merit and firing the entire staff of schools deemed to have made no progress.  Their record on public education is enough to make us long for the Bush regime.   Both approaches are without any supporting evidence; both have served to dumb-down the curriculum; both stand no chance to improve the performance of our nation’s children.  Sitting at the table with these people, trying to accommodate their pop education reforms does nothing in the long run to improve our public image.  When these foolish remedies don’t work, craven politicians will surely find a way to blame the unions for undermining these efforts to change the system.  How much more sensible it would be to counter those who have no faith in public education with a real, fleshed out program to improve our schools, a program aimed at appealing to the conscience of America to once and for all address the economic, medical, social and educational barriers that prevent too many of our students from accomplishing all that they might academically.  It’s time to be accountable as a nation for the neglect of our children.

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